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Middle Eastern Telecom Accused of Working With Saudi Arabia to Spy on Citizens

BY Paul Mutter | Friday, May 17 2013

Screenshot from portal.

Mobily, an arm of the state-owned Middle Eastern telecom giant Etihad Etisalat, has been accused of working with Saudi Arabia to develop software that would allow the government to bypass protections for social media users. The exposé comes from Moxie Marlinspike (neé Matthew Rosenfield), an expert in a certain type of malicious Internet attack called MITM (man-in-the-middle), whereby attackers intercept and secretly alter private messages exchanged via email and other social media platforms.

In his blog post about the incident, Marlinspike describes an exchange with the Executive Manager of the Network & Information Security Department at Mobily, in which he was asked to contribute to a "[s]olution for monitoring encrypted data on telecom" that would include such sites as Mobile Twitter, Viber, Line, and WhatsApp. Moxie declined to assist, and went public with the story.

Mobily, founded in 2005, denies it is involved with this project, or that one of its employees approached Moxie. Interestingly, though, the LinkedIn and Facebook profiles said to belong to the Mobily executive named in the exposé, Yasser D. Alruhaily, have been taken down, though his Yatedo account is still active and names him as a Mobily employee, Reuters reported.

Moxie told Salon that the justification offered to him was that these sites were being used for "spreading terrorism" in the country. He, however, feels that this has less to do with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula than "the terror of the re-tweet," and with the way hacking is increasingly intersecting with what the Wall Street Journal has termed "Censorship Inc.", the intersection of state, corporate and hacker interests in building a better mousetrap for Internet users.

Reuters reports that "[t]he Saudi telecom regulator issued a vaguely worded directive in March warning that many web-based communication tools" — including Whatsapp and Viber — "broke local laws." Though the directive did not specify what would be censored, or present a blueprint for the country's three telecom providers, Moxie says that Mobily already has a working prototype of the decryption platform to be casting around for outside review.

Viral Saudi protest hashtag

Tweeting at Saudi Twitter users, who took his article viral with a hashtag in Arabic that means "Mobily is spying on the people," Moxie wrote "[t]hanks for all of the kind words and encouragement from Saudi Arabia. When they try to silence you, be loud." Internet censorship in Saudi Arabia is among the most stringent in the world. It is run out of a hub at the King Abdul-Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) in Riyadh, a science and technology center that has program collaborations with the University of Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge, and MIT in several fields that are not related to information technology. According to the US-based SANS Institute, "technicians are imported from places like the USA and Scandinavia, but the censors handing out directives regarding what Web content to block are exclusively Saudi Arabian." Réseaux IP Européens (RIPE) and Freedom House also identify KACST — specifically its Internet Services Unit — as the buttonhole through which the Internet enters Saudi Arabia. Though as all three groups note, the actual censoring is carried out by employees of the Communications and Information Commission (CITC) in Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi Arabia’s first line-of-defense on the Internet is a list of banned URLs that are explicitly denied when entered in a browser window" — approved URLs are copied directly onto the KACST system and can only be accessed through it. "When a user attempts to visit a website that has not been evaluated by KACST reviewers, a second stage of the content-filtering system is activated" — at this level, continues the report, "the number of banned sites goes well into the hundreds of thousands." Sites like these have at times included Google Translate, Yahoo!, YouTube, and Wikipedia. Websites featuring content involving human rights, pornography, swimwear, homosexuality, cannabis, or privacy software, along with many sites discussing religious practices, including Wahhabism itself.

It is "absolutely feasible and not surprising at all that they would do it," says Jillian C. York, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Director of International Freedom of Expression. Though Jillian and others reporting on the affair find it odd that Mobily would even "ask someone like Moxie for help, given his obvious preferences (based on his previous work) toward free expression," Moxie believes he was approached because of his work on MITM without the Mobily manager looking too deeply into his background. In other words, Mobily did not contact him at the direction of the CITC or ISU, but would have been fielding for a contractor to meet the new monitoring requirements outlined in March by the state. The proliferation of media critical of the state since the early 2000s — especially in light of the formation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula during that time — has officials worried about a new wave of terrorist attacks in an increasingly volatile regional mix.

Muting criticism to preserve a regime

But such fears do not tell the whole story.

While some Saudi Twitter users support expanded monitoring for religious or security reasons, the response has been largely negative: there is now a widely-followed #OpSaudi DDOS attack going on against government and university webpages. Meanwhile, the popular cartoonist Abdullah Jaber (@jabertoon) drew a comic of a Saudi man wetting himself in terror in the presence of Twitter's blue bird.

As the different poles of the Saudi social media response show — either mocking the authorities' fear of uncensored information or expressing support to prevent "blasphemy" — the politics of the Saudi Twitterverse are deeply debated by its users. Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed of King's College has outlined the online mix of religious revivalists, secularists and middle-of-the-way users that cause the censors' such headaches:

"The virtual opposition included a mix of Islamists, liberals, non-Saudis, and others. Some youth had clear political visions for the outcome of protest, but others simply expressed frustration at their limited economic opportunities. Young activists directed anger at the older generation—tribal, religious, and royal elders—and portrayed members of the royal family and their bureaucrats as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Young women in particular expressed frustration over their marginalization."

Though Al-Rasheed cautions assuming that social media activism can achieve a "spring" in the Gulf states — neighboring Bahrain's crackdown on protestors demonstrates her point that "where the state is the only institution that matters, effectively bringing people together offline may be impossible — she argues that "the Web is useful for publicizing action. Indeed, the 2011 "driving protests" campaign, initiated by Saudi women who defied the Kingdom's ban on female drivers by getting behind the wheel and recording their defiance of the law, got its start on Facebook and YouTube.

And one of the most popular Twitter users in the Kingdom is the user Mujtahidd, who has been prolific in recounting alleged abuses of privilege by members of the ruling House of Saud. Writing for the prominent Middle East blog The Arabist, Nathan Field, a translation service owner who moonlights as a political analyst, notes that this is probably permitted because Mujtahidd "hope[s] to push the Kingdom through their Twitter activity towards a more institutionalized, non-personality-centric system of government." Saudi Arabia is not without reformers — Lane believes Mujtahidd may actually be a lawyer with high level contacts seeking reform — but what can be said online is heavily censored and self-censored. His material is almost certainly being tracked and read regularly because of trigger words keyed into Saudi content filters.

Consequences of protest

The limitations are not to be taken lightly. The poet Hamza Kashgari was detained in Malaysia in 2012 after an outpouring of protest from Saudi Twitter users who found his latest verse posted online "offensive." Pressure from top clerics to impose the death penalty on Kashgari led to his extradition and trial back home (which fortunately has not seen the death penalty applied). Another blogger, Raif Badawi, was also brought before a Sharia court to face charges of blasphemy and apostasy after comments he made online were seized upon by Twitter users and clerics. The novelist Turki Al Hamad has been detained since last year due to his "inflammatory" tweets. YouTubing protests has proven to be a risk for the few activists who dare film them, and two filmmakers involved with a viral video about urban poverty were detained for several weeks in 2011.

Both the grand mufti and the chief of the religious police have concdemned Twitter as an agent of evil. And the Kingdom's richest prince, Alwaleed bin Talal, actually owns stock in Twitter worth US$300 million. That many devout Salafis use Twitter in spite of official censure to police online comment shows just how popular the medium is. That they are the ones who raise tweets to the level of national media coverage and debate puts the religious authorities and the political regime in a bind. Allow too much liberalizing protest and the system is undermined — but fail to be responsive to conservative complaints, and a "holier than thou" protest attitude creeps in that cannot help but remind the ruling class of Osama bin Laden's puritanism.

Much as China censors its Internet partly to mute criticism that it has lost its way by embracing capitalism while retaining communist pomp and circumstance, Saudi Arabia censors its Internet in part to mute similar criticism that the regime is betraying its self-appointed purpose — to protect Islam and its holy sites. When the authorities send out missives to service providers and third party contractors to monitor "terrorism" content online, it is not simply about terrorism, or about giving cover to dislike of online gambling, pornography and foreign films. It is primarily about managing the flow of information and opinions, so that the authorities can manage the streams of reformist, liberal, and conservative opinions expressed by opponents of the regime who find outlets for their frustrations online.

Correction: Due to an editing error, Nathan Field's surname was originally rendered as Nathan Lane. We have corrected the name and apologize for the error.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at New York University. He is a regular contributor to the Arabist and Souciant blogs.

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