Saudi Arabians are using a mobile app sold by both Apple and Google to snitch on their fellow citizens for dissenting against government authorities. As a result, activists and others are going to prison for more than 30 years in some cases, Business Insider reported on Friday.
On August 16, Saudi national Salma el-Shabab, a PhD student at Leeds University, was sentenced to 34 years in prison for tweets “in support of activists and members of the kingdom’s political opposition in exile,” the report said. Though the posts were made while she was in the UK, el-Shabab was nonetheless reported through the “Kollona Amn” app and immediately arrested upon returning home.
“Every day we wake up to hear news, somebody has been arrested, or somebody has been taken,” Real, a Saudi women’s-rights activist using an alias, told Insider.
Kollona Amn – which roughly translates to “We Are All Security” in Arabic – was launched by the Saudi Interior Ministry in 2017, but the last few years have seen a “dramatic” surge in court cases referencing the app, according to legal-rights activists.
The app “encourages everyday citizens to play the role of police and become active participants in their own repression. Putting the state’s eyes everywhere also creates a pervasive sense of uncertainty – there is always a potential informant in the room or following your social media accounts,” said Noura Aljizawi, a researcher at Citizen Lab, which focuses on threats to free speech online.
The Orwellian nature of the app is such that users often report on people “defensively,” fearing they could face punishment themselves for merely overhearing speech deemed offensive to the regime. In some cases, the app has also been used for “blackmail” and to “settle scores,” Insider noted.
Despite its role in crushing dissent in the repressive Gulf monarchy, the app is still sold by both Google and Apple, neither of which responded to Insider’s requests for comment. Google, moreover, is set to open two new offices in Saudi Arabia sometime this year, and is now working on a controversial data partnership with the state-run oil firm Saudi Aramco. The tech giant insists it will safeguard user data, but some activists say the move will “risk lives” and hand the government additional tools to spy on citizens.
In some cases, privacy concerns have led activists to keep two or three phones – one containing government apps and others without them – in an attempt to avoid the Kingdom’s totalitarian surveillance, facilitated by American companies.
In May 2021, a doctor named Lina al-Sharif was jailed on unknown charges, though people close to her said someone attempted to blackmail her and threatened to report her through the Kollona Amn app. She had been advocating for human rights in Saudi Arabia on Twitter prior to her arrest. Nearly 2.5 million Saudis are on the platform, but Twitter and other social media sites have been used by Riyadh to crack down on political dissent and activism, as well as to police the regime’s austere moral code.
Another case in 2019 resulted in a three-year prison sentence for Suhail Yousef AlYahya, a gay man, who was charged for “cybercrimes” and “public decency offenses” after he posted pictures of himself wearing a swimsuit.
Not only has the Saudi state used mobile apps and social media against its critics, employees at some platforms have actively worked to carry out Riyadh’s agenda. In August, an ex-manager at Twitter was found guilty in a US federal court of working on Saudi Arabia’s behalf without registering himself as a foreign agent, allegedly receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for information about Saudi dissidents, including email addresses, phone numbers and other data.