Launched on Safer Internet Day (9 February), the #SaferArabicInternet campaign suggests a concern for online security that is not borne out by Google’s announcement on 21 December that it is including Saudi Arabia in the three new regions of the world into which it is extending its network of data centres.
The move into Saudi Arabia was the result of an agreement reached earlier in December with the Saudi petroleum giant Aramco after two years of talks. An initial memorandum of understanding on joint exploration of the possibility of locating new cloud services in Saudi Arabia had been announced in 2018.
Nonetheless, after journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, Google was one of the leading digital companies to distance itself from Saudi Arabia by withdrawing from a conference for investors organized in Riyadh. So, RSF is surprised by its decision to extend into Saudi Arabia now and urges Google to ensure that data is protected from Saudi government surveillance.
“Business interests must not take precedence over safeguarding human rights,” said Iris de Villars, the head of RSF’s Tech Desk. “The Saudi government has repeatedly shown that it has no qualms about flouting human rights in order to track and target critical journalists, so the danger of surveillance is considerable. We call on Google to establish sufficient safeguards for the protection of user data in order to prevent the government from exploiting this situation to reinforce its ability to spy on and silence dissidents.”
Saudi Arabia has conducted several surveillance operations targeting journalists in recent years. In November 2019, the US justice department charged two Twitter employees with providing the Saudi government with sensitive information about its opponents. The 6,000 Twitter accounts accessed in the course of this espionage operation in late 2014 and early 2015 included that of Omar Abudlaziz, a dissident journalists close to Khashoggi.
Saudi Arabia is also suspected of repeatedly using spyware to monitor dissidents. On 20 December, Citizen Lab reported that operatives probably linked to the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had used NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to hack into a total of 36 personal phones belonging to journalists, producers, anchors, and executives at Al Jazeera, and the personal phone of Rania Dridi, a journalist at London-based Al Araby TV.
In a report published on 22 January, David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, and Agnès Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings, said they had information indicating that a WhatsApp account belonging to the Saudi crown prince had deployed spyware enabling surveillance of Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos’s phone with the aim of influencing or silencing the newspaper’s coverage of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is ranked 170th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.