Browsing 'privacy' News

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Bhupinder Nayyar/Flickr

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Qatar’s government has shown limited interest in tracking down people through Facebook or blocking specific content shared on the platform, according to a new report by the social media giant.

Facebook said it received one request from local authorities to provide information about a user in the first half of 2015, down from two during the same period last year and requests for details about eight users during all of 2013.

Facebook said it rejected all those requests.

For illustrative purposes only.

For illustrative purposes only.

It added that the vast majority of the requests it receives from governments around the world relate to criminal cases, such as robberies or kidnappings, and can be for a user’s name, IP address, account content or other information.

“If a request appears to be deficient or overly broad, we push back hard and will fight in court, if necessary,” the US-based company said in a statement accompanying the data, adding that it does not give any government a “back door” to directly access user data.

Privacy questions

Facebook and other large technology and telecommunication companies, such as Google and Vodafone, have started to disclose in recent years the number of times they are asked by governments for customer information in attempts to show that they respect their users’ privacy.

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Yellow Filter/Flickr

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Similar to Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain made 14 and 12 requests, respectively, over a comparable time period, all of which were turned down.

Kuwait, meanwhile, has asked for information about 26 Facebook users since mid-2013 and had received at least some data on one person.

Complete information about Oman and Saudi Arabia’s requests was unavailable.

While Qatar’s official requests to Facebook are low, this doesn’t necessarily mean that authorities are uninterested in what residents are doing online.

While little is known about how Qatar polices the internet, Wikileaks reported last year that the country’s State Security Bureau has been a customer of a German technology firm that sells software used to secretly monitor emails and other forms of online communication.

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European Parliament/Flickr

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Facebook was Qatar’s most popular social media platform in 2013, according to a report by the Dubai School of Government. However, it found that interest in Facebook was fading in Qatar in part because other sites were emerging.

More recently, a December 2014 study from ictQatar found that Facebook, along with WhatsApp, are still the most-used social media platforms in the country.

Though Qatar has been requesting less information about user data in recent years, there has been an overall increase in the requests for information globally.

In a blog post, Facebook said overall government requests for account data increased by 18 percent, from 35,051 requests in the second half of 2014 to 41,214 in the first half of this year.

More than half of those requests came from US law enforcement agencies, which collectively sought information on 26,579 users.

Blocked content

Meanwhile, unlike several of its Gulf neighbors, Qatar does not appear to have asked Facebook to block any content inside the country.

In contrast, the UAE asked that a total of 13 pieces of content be blocked because it was critical of the government or royal family. Saudi Arabia successfully had seven items banned for similar reasons.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Qatar and other Gulf countries use automated censorship tools that analyze the content of websites and categorizes URLs. These tools block websites deemed to contain obscene content, but have occasionally temporarily blocked popular blogging platforms and hotel booking sites by accident.

Typically, the country’s morality filters block material that could be considered pornographic or critical of Islam. But reports of controversial political sites being censored in recent years have been few and far between.

Still, there are also isolated cases of authorities targeting residents for material posted publicly, including a Facebook comment and a YouTube video.


Cell phone

Petar Milošević/Wikicommons

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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.

Protect yourself

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.

Melhem continued:

“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.”


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Daniel Foster/Flickr

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The country’s second-largest telecom firm has said local laws prevent it from disclosing how often it turns over customer information to Qatari authorities.

On Friday, Vodafone published its first-ever law enforcement disclosure report analyzing the demands made of it by law enforcement agencies in 29 countries between April 2013 to March 2014.

Specifically, the UK-based company released the number of demands it receives for a customer’s communications data – information such as call duration, location and destination – as well as requests for “lawful interception,” better known as wiretapping.

In its country-by-country report, Vodafone said local laws prevented it from releasing information on Qatar as well as Albania, Egypt, Hungary and Ireland.

Cell phone

Greg Lilly/Flickr

Several more countries prohibit the disclosure of any details about how lawful interception is conducted, but allow companies such as Vodafone to publish the number of times it asked for communications data.

By contrast, readers can see that the Czech Republic made 7,677 wiretapping requests of Vodafone, while Portuguese authorities asked for communications data 28,145 times. In many cases, Vodafone links to previously published government reports on authorities accessing private communications.

During a press conference late last month discussing Vodafone Qatar’s financial results, CEO Kyle Whitehill was asked by Doha News about the extent to which it discloses customer data. He responded that the company helps law enforcement officials catch lawbreakers.

“We are always very, very cooperative to agencies when they require information from us. We help them track criminal activity.”

Qatar laws

Though it couldn’t go into specifics, the Vodafone report does, however, note that authorities in Qatar have the right to demand unfettered access to customer conversations:

“Article 59 of the Telecommunication Law states ‘service providers must comply with the requirements of the security authorities in the state’ … Any government department interested in ‘State security’ can rely on Article 59 … (Additionally), Article 93 of the Telecoms By-Laws states ‘nothing in the By-Law prohibits or infringes upon the rights of authorised governmental authorities to access confidential information or communication relating to a customer.’

Vodafone also notes in its report that there is no judicial oversight in Qatar of how law enforcement agencies exercise their power.

In its report, the company said it respects local regulations – even when some would argue that they are unjust intrusions on personal privacy:

“We respect the law in each of the countries in which we operate. We go to significant lengths to understand those laws and to ensure that we interpret them correctly, including those that may be unpopular or out of step with prevailing public opinion but which nevertheless remain in force.”

Vodafone said it is one of the first telecommunications company to prepare such a disclosure report. Vodafone says it is one of the first telecommunications company to prepare such a disclosure report.

Its main rival in Qatar, Ooredoo, does not directly address the issue of turning customer information over to authorities, but notes on its website that it is covered by the same local telecommunications law referenced by Vodafone.

The company prepared its report in an attempt to explain its principles, policies and procedures when faced with a demand to assist security forces with law enforcement and intelligence-gathering activities.

However, it added that the onus should fall on governments – not operators such as itself – to be more transparent in how often it requests communications records.