It is the viral news of the hour; Saudi regulators are thinking of banning the online communication services of Skype, Viper, and Whatsapp!
Expectedly, first reactions are all about discontent, anger, and series of jokes and hashtags on Twitter. It is an attack on the freedom of speech, a lot said. Saudis are dying to play the big brother role; they want to control, to spy on, and to monitor their citizens’ innocent human interactions. And something like that would not pass without a touch from conspiracy theorists; telecom companies should be behind all of this, of course they do not want these free services to slash a piece at their profits!
But maybe we need to step back for a second and try to give it some thoughts … are the security concerns surrounding these services totally baseless? Or they have some merits?
Flash news, Saudi Arabia is not the first country in the universe to voice concerns about these services, a lot of governments, east and west, already did. Fears of misuse were always lurking in the dark; drug and human traffickers, pedophiles, and terrorists are on the top of list of suspects!
It is easy, and it is free. You could open an account and start firing messages or having conference calls in seconds. Of course you could be a mother checking on your son who is studying in another country, a lover bleeding a poem to your girlfriend through the cyber space, or you could be a drug dealer closing a deal on an upcoming shipment. That is why the FBI coined the term “going dark” whenever talking about suspects using these services. They just disappear, swim in a void, and become harder to trace.
Skype, for instance, was known to be the impenetrable online service. Its encryption was hard to break. Of course when suspicions started to appear, governments stepped in to find a solution. They eventually forced Skype to ease its security measures to allow governmental monitoring whenever needed. An industry official commented on Microsoft, who bought Skype in 2011, saying that “Microsoft has approached the issue with tremendous sensitivity and a canny awareness of what the issues would be,” the issue he is referring to in here is the governmental ability to monitor Skype.
Whatsapp, on the other hand, is known for its weak privacy and security measures. Hijacking Whatsapp accounts is considered as a field training for aspiring hackers (check here for some highlights). And lately, Whatsapp came under scrutiny by Canadian and Dutch data protection authorities over allegations of users’ privacy violations!
The long story short, in my opinion, governments have the right to take certain measures to protect their citizens from the probable misuse of these service! Of course that does not mean breaching the privacy of everyone! There must be a whole judicial system to take care of that!
So why all this uproar in the Saudi case? I think it is in the way the news was reported. This is a typical mistake of Saudi authorities. Most of them do not know how to approach the public with their decisions. In this particular case, the decision was reported, marketed if you wish, as a way to monitor instead of protect, a way to breach privacy instead of saving it!
If such measures should be taken to fight crimes, I cannot find a reason to be threatened by them.