Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s involvement in conflicts and civil wars in countries like Yemen and Libya is causing growing alarm among critics as concerns spread about their heavy handed imprint on human rights violations in the Middle East region. Across the region but especially in Libya, Yemen and Syria, human rights activists have been victimized and silenced as a result of arrests, assassinations, and torture attributed to these repressive regimes.
Crimes such as the murder of journalist Jamal Khashogji, were made possible by violating the privacy of human rights defenders in the Middle East through the use of espionage software to gather information about human rights activities critical of these governments in both war-torn countries and domestically. This was accomplished by designing apps to harvest information and data about these human rights activists, their work and their whereabouts which, in many instances, enabled the end users to target and harm them.
An example of this kind of intrusive “spyware” is ToTok, which, according to the New York Times, was developed in the UAE to spy on and collect information about people, including their photos, videos, contact numbers and locations. ToTok was removed from the App Store once the danger it posed to people’s privacy became known. Saudi Arabia purchased Israeli software to spy on human rights foes critical of the Saudi government. Omar Abdilaziz filed a suit before an Israeli court against the Israeli company NSO Spyware Ltd, which reportedly helped Saudi Arabia spy on his friend Jamal Khashogji. The judge decided to go ahead with the trial and in the end ordered NSO to pay the legal fees for the Omar Abdilaziz.
The UN, but especially UNHRC through UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy Joe Cannataci, should question these two governments about their involvement in surveillance activities which threaten people’s right to privacy, in particular human rights defenders whose lives are at risk because of the invasiveness of these apps. It is up to the UN to ensure that human rights defenders are accorded full protection, including the right to privacy given that so many of them are subject to threats by governments with little regard for the concept of human rights.
According to Reuters, A team of former U.S. government intelligence operatives working for the United Arab Emirates hacked into the iPhones of activists, diplomats and rival foreign leaders with the help of a sophisticated spying tool called Karma, in a campaign that shows how potent cyber- weapons are proliferating beyond the world’s superpowers and into the hands of smaller nations. The cyber tool allowed the small Gulf country to monitor hundreds of targets beginning in 2016, from the Emir of Qatar and a senior Turkish official to a Nobel Peace laureate human-rights activist in Yemen, according to five former operatives and program documents reviewed by Reuters. The sources interviewed by Reuters were not Emirati citizens. Karma was used by an offensive cyber operations unit in Abu Dhabi comprised of Emirati security officials and former American intelligence operatives working as contractors for the UAE’s intelligence services.
The UAE has a long and well-documented record of espionage and human rights violations. Human Rights Watch has consistently criticized the country for its record of spying on and attempting to silence people critical of the ruling families, highlighting that the UAE continues to “arbitrarily detain and disappear individuals who criticize authorities”.
 Mark Mazzetti, Nicole Perlroth and Ronen Bergman. It Seemed Like a Popular Chat App. It’s Secretly a Spy Tool. The New York Times. New York, 22 December 2019. Accessed on 3 March 2020, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/22/us/politics/totok-app-uae.html
 Oliver Holmes and Stephanie Kirchgaessner. Israeli spyware firm fails to get hacking case dismissed. The Guardian, London. 16 January 2020. Accessed on 3 March 2020, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/-world/2020/jan/16/israeli-spyware-firm-nso-hacking-case
 Christopher Bing, Joel Schectman. Special Report - Inside the UAE’s secret hacking team of U.S. mercenaries. Reuters, Special Reports. 30 January 2019. Available at: https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-usa-spying-raven-specialreport/special-report-inside-the-uaes-secret-hacking-team-of-u-s-mercenaries-idUKKCN1PO1A6
 Helsinki Times. Revealed: Secretive UAE cybersecurity firm with a history of spying on dissidents is operating in Finland. Helsinki Times, Helsinki. Available at: https://www.helsinkitimes.fi/finland/finland-news/domestic/16165-revealed-secretive-uae-cybersecurity-firm-with-a-history-of-spying-on-dissidents-is-operating-in-finland.html