Western regulators must prevent tech companies from selling software to be used to spy on Middle Eastern populations

Western regulators must prevent tech companies from selling software to be used to spy on Middle Eastern populations
The blocked page for du, the major government owned telecoms giant, UAE.

 

The UAE is one of the world’s largest consumers of mobile data. Averaging some 18GB per person per month, the integration of technology and digital communication aids has been a central tenant of modern life for Emiratis in recent decades. Eager take up of technology in it’s myriad forms across the UAE, a desire to integrate tech into their everyday lives present at both individual level, and crucially, state level. From building a ‘technology ecosystem’ to smart cities, the adoption of technology is pervasive. Whilst it has provided some valuable opportunities for Emiratis, it has allowed for increasing surveillance and portals into the lives of residents. 

 

The feeling of omnipotence of the state in private and public spaces is a rather pervasive feeling among Emirati’s and non-native residents. In a report by Le Monde, one interviewee expressed that “we assume - or rather, we know - that we are under constant surveillance”. Understanding the psychological impact of being constantly aware of ‘un-private’ conversations in your daily life has a taxing impact. Intrusion, and the feeling of being unsafe in private spaces, is a clear form of psychological violence and must be considered as such. Anxieties about your own actions, speech, relationships and how they have been perceived encumbers individuals with a looming sense of danger. The 2021 Pegasus Hacking scandal revealed that Sheikh Mohammed, ruler of Dubai, had hacked his ex-wife’s phone using the NSO Groups controversial spyware, transferring up 265 megabytes of data. Princess Haya, later reported to The Guardian that “it feels as if I am being stalked, there is literally nowhere for me to go to be safe from [her ex-husband]”. Whilst a terrifying prospect, this is the case for a woman of prominent position, those who do not belong to the ruling household are likely subject to far worse.

 

Two major global events have contributed largely to the governments steadfast determination to surveil it’s population and identify potential ‘threats’. Firstly, the 9/11 attacks led to an increasing wariness of political Islam. Surveillance of Mosques, tightening regulations on migrant workers from Arab countries and the targeting of clerics and those considered radical leaders. The second, the Arab Spring. The ousting of Tunisian and Egyptian presidents in 2011, illustrated to the state that social media and free expression of opinion online posed a significant risk to power across Middle East. A medium for unwanted expression and a possible tool for liberation, social media became tightly regulated and observed. 

 

With the government possessing majority holdings in the two major telecoms operators in the Emirates, Etisalat and Du, the state holds devastating power over the population. This can largely be understood as telecoms companies being subject to government policy, with little room for manoeuvre. Unfettered access to data through both online traffic, like metadata, and non-digital communication, such as telephone calls, makes truly private communication via devices virtually impossible. 

 

Much of the technology used to surveil Emiratis (as well as other populations across the Middle East and North Africa) comes from the West. Companies like netsweeper, Websense, Intel, McAfee and many more sell an array of tech that enables the government to sift through metadata and phone calls to identify unwanted activities, communication and expression. One of the most prominent tools is mass filtering, a software that can identify pictures, text, and related data that refers to a particular subject or notion and then flag for the relevant authorities to review, or software to immediately censor. State-run ISPs (Internet Service Providers), like in the UAE, therefore, have unlimited access to filter online and non-digital communication via such software. 

 

In the Emirates, the primary mass filtering tool is provided by McAfee (SmartFilter), which gloats a huge range of filtering categories that are at the disposal of any ISP. Whilst, certainly, there are useful and pertinent uses for such software, such as identifying directly hateful and violent language, inappropriate content for school and children’s computers, and a number of other uses, McAfee neglects to mention the possibilities for misusing it’s products.

 

 

An important thing to consider for any modern policy-maker is the amoral position of technology. Wide-ranging uses of software that filters and identifies ‘unwanted’ expression, posts, ideas, etc. swing from stopping pornography streaming to children’s computers to identifying free expression from a particular ethnic group. Recognising this, impACT suggests that in the wrong hands, such software is not commercial, but rather military in character and should be treated as such. Therefore, regulation of tech sales must be treated on a case by case basis, considering the possible uses for each software, then the desitination and contextual use. 

 

We at impACT implore Western nations and their related regulatory bodies, especially the FCC in relation to McAfee’s use in the likes of the UAE, to reconsider their policies on allowing such software to be sold to nations with poor human rights records. In light of the 2019 HUAWEI debacle, where the company was banned from the US for having back-doors that allowed the Chinese authorities to spy on users, we ask that the same concern for individual rights applied to McAfee and American entities. 

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