Following a spate of recent arrests, government officials are warning Qatar residents to be cautious about their personal data when taking their mobile phones in for repairs.
In a statement released this week, the Criminal Investigation Department of the Ministry of Interior announced that it had arrested 35 men working at local phone shops for blackmail and extortion.
The MOI said the men, mostly of Asian and Arab origins, had been caught copying photos and videos stored on customers’ phones without their knowledge.
The store employees also threatened to share the data on social media in an attempt to extort huge sums of money from women.
According to the statement, the men were identified through “electronic search(es) and investigation” done by the CID’s Cybercrime Combatting Center.
The CID then visited the mobile shops, and upon checking the devices of the accused and finding photos of citizens and residents on them, arrested the men and seized their tablets.
They men allegedly confessed during interrogation, saying they especially targeted women who had turned their phones in for maintenance.
Speaking to Doha News, Amanda Melhem, a sophomore at Northwestern University in Qatar, recalled an incident that took place earlier this summer involving her 19-year-old Jordanian friend.
The friend took her Samsung to a mobile phone repair shop and stayed in the store as an attendant rebooted the phone and tried to fix it, but then left to go to the bathroom.
“When she came back, (the men)…jumped a bit. I believe there were two men working on the phone when she came back, even though before she left only one was fixing it. They gave her her phone back and it was perfectly fine, but she noticed that photos from her emails had been downloaded. They were attachments that she hadn’t even looked at yet.”
She added that her friend felt violated, as the pictures were of an extremely sensitive nature. However, lacking the means to prove that the men had indeed downloaded and viewed the attachments, she didn’t report the incident or confront the store.
Due to an increasing number of complaints, MOI has advised residents to erase personal data, pictures and videos before handing in their phones to repair shops.
The ministry has also urged residents not to download applications through these stores, adding:
“To copy images from others’ mobile devices without their permission is a punishable crime.”