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17 Aug 2022

Stephanie Kirchgaessner & Robyn Vinter, The Guardian

Saudi Arabia: Government crime-reporting app appears to have been used against jailed a PhD student & CSO raises concerns over a new phase of digital authoritarianism

"Saudi snitching app appears to have been used against jailed Leeds student", 17 August 2022

The Saudi woman who was sentenced to 34 years in prison for a tweet appears to have been denounced to Saudi authorities through a crime-reporting app that users in the kingdom can download to Apple and Android phones.

A review of Leeds PhD student Salma al-Shehab’s tweets and interactions shows she was messaged by a person using a Saudi account on 15 November, 2020 after she posted a mildly critical tweet in response to a Saudi government post about a new public transportation contract.

The user told Shehab that he had reported her on the Saudi app, which is called Kollona Amn, or We Are All Security. It is not clear whether the Saudi officials responded directly to the report, but the 34-year-old mother was arrested two months later.

Shehab’s case has been condemned by human rights groups and other pro-democracy outlets who said the draconian sentence against her was more evidence of the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s relentless crackdown on dissent.

Shehab was still working on completing her PhD in the UK in December 2020 when she returned home to Saudi to visit her family. A few weeks into her visit, she was summoned to report to Saudi authorities who arrested and tried her for her use of Twitter.

Her alleged crimes including using a website to “cause public unrest” and “assisting those who seek to cause public unrest and destabilise civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts” and by retweeting their tweets.

On official Saudi websites, Kollona Amn – which also has a Twitter account – is described as an app that allows citizens and expatriates to submit security and criminal reports related to personal life attacks, threats, impersonation, extortion, penetration of social media accounts, defamation, fraud and other criminal offences and security reports.

Noura Aljizawi, a researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which identifies digital threats against civil society, said the use of such applications – which can be downloaded via app stores for iPhone and Android users – represented a “new phase of digital authoritarianism”.

“It used to be that this kind of censorship was conducted by security intelligence forces, but now having these applications and encouraging citizens to report on each other, is opening the door to massive censorship,” she said.

Apple and Google did not immediately respond to questions by the Guardian about whether they would review allowing Kollona Amn to be downloaded in light of Shehab’s sentence.

Bethany Al-Haidari, the Saudi case manager at the Freedom Initiative, a US-based human rights group, said Saudi Arabia had used technology to violate human rights and track targets of the government for decades.