The areas of sci-fi where artificial intelligence/technology controls our every move, like Netflix’s love death + robot, is no longer just fiction. It is a reality in which billions of people live. According to the latest reports, Saudi Arabia’s “spy app” may have led to the arrest of a British university student for her mild criticism of the establishment on Twitter.
A few weeks ago, a Saudi woman, Salma al-Shehab, a PhD student at Britain’s University of Leeds, was arrested while visiting her home country and sentenced to a staggering 34-year prison sentence.
Why? All because of a tweet reportedly denouncing the Saudi authorities.
News from the Thomson Reuters Foundation Citing DAWN, a US-based human rights group, reported that another woman, Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani, was also sentenced to 45 years in prison for “using the internet to disrupt the (Saudi) social fabric.” to destroy”.
There is one commonality between the two cases. Apparently, the two women were reported by unidentified Saudi Arabian citizens through a government app called “Kollona Amn,” meaning “We Are All Security.” With the apps, ordinary citizens can file charges against anyone and report “criminal” activities by their fellow citizens. Rights groups believe Shehab and Qahtani were also reported on the app by ordinary citizens of Saudi Arabia.
Dubbed a “spy app,” the government-backed app encourages citizens to be spies.
In June this year, a user responded to Salma al-Shehab’s mildly critical 2020 tweet that he would report her via the Kollona Amn app. Two months later she was arrested.
Worse still, the arrest of the two women simply for speaking out was made possible by Western-owned companies like Apple and Google, who allowed the app on their platforms.
Saudi Arabia’s spy app is an example of how autocratic governments are using technology; even Western technology developed in democratic nations; to suppress critics.
2019, News from the Thomson Reuters Foundation reported that Apple and Google allowed the download of a Saudi government app called Absher App. The app allowed men to track the movements of their wives and other female relatives at the touch of a button. It allowed men to update or revoke travel authorizations for women, receive SMS prompts when using their passports, etc.
Saudi Arabia does not allow women to travel internationally without a male guardian or permission from a male guardian.
Not just in Saudi Arabia, but around the world, technology is being used by oppressive regimes to monitor citizens and critics.
3. China’s social credit system
China has successfully introduced its social credit system in all provinces without complaints…
Of course, complaints about the social credit system will lower your social credit score. pic.twitter.com/jgxyPVhWFf
– Probably a bot (@ProbablyABot00) August 29, 2022
China is the undisputed flagship of state surveillance. Perhaps one of their greatest surveillance systems is the social credit system that the Chinese Communist Party has been building since 2014. Much of it is already in use. The system is similar to what was shown in FIG Black Mirror dive Episode where people can only buy houses and other requirements if they have high credit.
The system collects huge amounts of identification data from its 1.4 billion inhabitants. It allows local police chiefs to get all the information about a citizen walking down the street, even who they will meet. The data allows local authorities to rank citizens according to their social and political activities.
It also inadvertently allows the Chinese government to stalk its critics’ every move.
4. Apple deletes apps for China
If autocratic, government-developed or government-bought technology isn’t enough, tech giants from democratic nations like Apple have also lent a helping hand to oppressive regimes. Apple has been criticized for removing over 60 apps from its app store in China that allowed citizens to bypass the country’s Great Firewall. Apps included VPNs and more.
Apple fought the FBI tooth and nail for opening a suspected terrorist’s phone over privacy concerns in 2016, but it seems like it’s failing to maintain its integrity in another country.
5. Facebook is developing software to appease China?
Not only is Facebook irresponsible with its data, it has also shown an eagerness to work with authoritarian regimes. For China, they created a censorship tool to crack down on communication and freedom of speech. 3/
— Jared Yates Sexton (@JYSexton) July 12, 2018
Facebook has been accused of allegedly developing software to appease China and allow it to enter the Chinese market. The software would allow third parties to block specific posts and accounts from people’s news feeds based on their geographic location.
Reports have revealed how oppressive regimes in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries are relying on Western technology firms such as Area SpA (an Italian company) to set up surveillance programs. Bahrain reportedly used Germany-based Trovicor, a former subsidiary of Nokia Siemens, to penetrate the digital activities of political activists.
Myanmar’s military, which overthrew an elected government in a coup in 2021, used Western spy technology to target critics and citizens. They used the technology to hack into critics’ phones, decrypt data and perform facial recognition.
Even without complex high-tech systems, governments around the world use platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok to run misinformation campaigns, propaganda, and so on. Mostly with ample help from the citizens themselves (unintentionally or not).