London based think Tank, Tactics Institute For Security and Counter-Terrorism has published a key report titled “Analysing the UAE-Chinese Cybersecurity alliance”. The report warns of the ever-growing cooperation between the two sites and potential implications on Europe and the West more broadly.
The report is the result of cooperation between academics and experts such as Dr Lora Pitman, a visiting research assistant professor in cybersecurity at Old Dominion University, Dr Metodi Hadji Janev, Ph.D.), an associate professor of international law at the Law Faculty, University Goce Delcev Shtip and an adjunct faculty member at Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, Arizona State University, ASU, USA and Dr Alexanderos Sarris, senior lecturer in international law at Erasmus University College in Rotterdam and Alexandru Georgesu, an expert (ranked scientific researcher) with the department for cybersecurity and critical infrastructure protection of the National Institute for Research and Development in Informatics ICI Bucharest.
Experts and previous reports have warned previously that UAE and China security and Technology cooperation will impact not only on human rights but also on projects with EU and the West as China attempts to copy and steal relevant projects.
The report states that theUAE has leveraged its significant resources and partnerships abroad to accrue the best tools and the best expertise in order to construct a cyber security apparatus that is also used to silence activists and to control speech.
The report adds, “We should also consider potential repercussions should the United States completely block the UAE from purchasing American-made technology products. The Trump administration’s restrictions on sales of products by US suppliers to Huawei could severely impact the bottom line of companies like Intel and Qualcomm, and a total prohibition might have the unintended consequence of inducing China to accelerate its own research into and development of the products. This would only increase current tensions between the two superpowers. Pushback from the US blacklisting of Huawei might be a harbinger of similar headwinds for proposed restrictions on sales to the UAE.”
Cautionary measures must, however, be taken when faced with these statistics. Much like Beijing, Dubai makes use of a charitable interpretation of the term ‘criminals’ to include political dissidents, human rights activists and journalists potentially threatening the monarchy. With the UAE’s highest rates of political prisoners per capita in the world, the legal acceptance of flogging and stoning practices and a history of torture, the incorporation of technology may only serve to dramatically magnify such repressive measures.
Of specific note recently is the UAE’s Project Raven, a secret hacking operation launched in 2009 under the guise of counterterrorism efforts. The project has been in part effective in achieving its aims: it has since helped the National Electric Security Authority (NESA) break up an ISIS network and aided in the investigation of potential assaults following an ISIS-claimed stabbing of a teacher in 2014. However, the broad scope of ‘criminals’ has also resulted in Project Raven targeting many others on arguably unjustifiable terms. For example, Rori Donaghy, a British journalist who reported on and publicly lambasted the country’s poor human rights records, found many of his networks hacked.
Similarly, Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent activist and a critic of Emirati policy, was sentenced to prison for 10 years fafter calling for reforms and human rights on Facebook and Twitter. Specifically, he was convicted of “publishing false information, rumours and lies about the UAE and promoting sectarian feelings and hatred that would damage the UAE’s social harmony and unity”. Many others singled out include other journalists and dissidents, among them American citizens. Project Raven’s precedent provides a strong warning of the potential implications of Oyoon.
The UAE’s success in these hacking operations and surveillance methods are in part due to resources provided for by the West. Many of Project Raven’s capacities are taken from methods learned from the US intelligence community, with the UAE having contracted the Baltimore-based cybersecurity firm, Cyberpoint.
The final chapter, titled “State Surveillance under Human Rights Law in China-UAE Cyber Security Alliance”, makes the largest prescriptive contribution to the report, by dissecting the myriad way in which human rights can be affected by digital authoritarian regimes that cloak their actions in pernicious or imprecise language – loaded terms such as “war” and an “arms race” are frequently inappropriate to describe what is going on and what is often reported in the media as examples of “cyber wars” do not entail violence and should more appropriately be referred to as instances of “cyber espionage”. Acts of espionage are usually governed by different legislation than acts of warfare.
One such country to mirror China is the UAE. In 2016, as part of its Vision 2021 Strategy, Dubai announced plans for Oyoon (‘eyes’ in Arabic) in cooperation with several high-level governmental ministries. An artificial intelligence surveillance program, Oyoon launched with the installation of thousands of CCTV cameras equipped with biometric surveillance capabilities across tourist destinations, traffic zones and public transit regions. As in the UAE, the stated goal is to reduce crime: since the program’s implementations, officials reported 319 arrests and cited a 99.5% decrease in unresolved and disturbing crimes in 2018 alone.