Amazon Web Services (AWS) announced on August 30 the launch of a new cloud region in the UAE, with plans to expand to Israel in the first half of 2023. Although celebrated for its ambitious economic and technological promises, this collaboration raises questions about its impact on human rights in the Arabic-speaking region.
According to AWS, the construction and the operation of the new data center in the UAE would provide around 6,000 full-time jobs annually and contribute almost $11 billion (AED 41 billion) to the national GDP over the next decade. A regional cloud allows for data localization and faster computing capabilities for organizations, thus attracting businesses seeking to advance their technological capabilities and accelerate innovation.
Beyond this vision for economic growth and diversification lies a powerful autocracy deploying technology to strengthen the state’s repressive arm. The UAE has invested heavily in spyware and internet filtering for social control, thwarting internal dissent, and manipulating the online discourse.
Tech investment in UAE
The UAE has established itself as the go-to tech hub in the region through revolutionizing its ICT infrastructure and offering strong financial incentives such as tax breaks and free trade zones for businesses and startups. As part of the country’s vision of diversifying its hydro-carbon dependent economy, private and state-owned investment companies have been acquiring substantial shares in social media apps and services, data centers, telecommunications and satellite operations. For example, Mubadala Investment Company, which is owned by the Abu Dhabi government, announced a direct investment of $75m in encrypted messaging app Telegram.
Like other Gulf countries, the UAE has often deployed insidious surveillance technologies including Israeli NSO’s Pegasus spyware and Evident, a mass surveillance tool manufactured by UK defense company BAE systems. These purchases have facilitated identifying and hacking dissidents, journalists, and human rights defenders inside the UAE and abroad. The country has also invested in developing spying firms and initiatives locally, such as DarkMatter, which operates under the guise of a “cyber-security” company.
The latter is also believed to be behind ToTok, a free messaging and video calling app released in 2019, which turned out to be a spy tool of the government capable of tracking the conversations and images of its users.
Legal Exceptions and Gaps
For example, the PDPL does not apply to the public sector and government authorities that control and process personal data. In a country where the government is heavily investing in private sector and tech industries, such an exclusion undermines the law’s effectiveness and transparency.
Another striking feature of the PDPL is that it grants the UAE Data Office, as a data protection authority, power to exempt establishments which do not process a “large” amount of personal data, without clearly defining the term “large.” This creates another layer of imbalance among entities to whom privacy obligations should apply and further restrains the intended scope of protection.
Another worrisome aspect of the law is that it grants the Data Office the possibility to delegate some of its powers to local government authorities, jeopardizing the Office’s independence.
Considering the PDPL’s shortcomings, will the personal data of UAE citizens, and residents in the Arabic-speaking region at large, be safe in this new Amazon cloud?
History of Digital Authoritarianism
The UAE has a history of persecuting free speech and peaceful activism, especially online. Dozens of activists, academics, journalists and human rights defenders are facing long prison sentences, with harsh conditions and under unfair trials, for expressing peaceful criticism on the internet, under the country’s vague cybercrime law. Take the case of Ahmed Mansoor, sentenced to 10 years in prison for criticizing human rights violations by the UAE, or Ahmed Etoum, for his Facebook posts opposing Jordan’s government.
With its record of abusing technology to spy on its population and stifle free speech, the UAE may not be a safe place to establish an Amazon cloud, as data protection is not guaranteed. Establishing a cloud service could make it easier for authorities to surveil and target dissidents if they have access to their personal data.
“Governments in the GCC have a very poor human rights record: from silencing dissent and citizens through detention, to torture, extrajudicial killings, and the use of spyware, etc.; the list goes on. This history raises concerns about big tech’s investments in the region, such as Amazon’s UAE Cloud Region,” stated Marianne Rahme, legal researcher in digital law and the Head of the Legal Unit at SMEX. “Big Tech is seriously facilitating human rights abuses in the region,” she added.
Tech companies have little regard to where they do business and consistently put profit before human rights. In recent years, tech giants Amazon and Google have launched large-scale projects in digitally authoritative countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel despite their horrific violations of human rights.
Written by Andrea López Pastor and Nourhane Kazak