Entrepreneur Middle East‘s Education Tech published this fantastic story on May 14, 2019, on a certain Hadi Partovi who “Having built (and funded) great startups, this entrepreneur and investor opens up on his mission to teach kids how to code.“
Sitting in a corner of The Third Line Gallery in Dubai’s arts district of Al Serkal Avenue, Hadi Partovi, a tech entrepreneur and angel investor known for his early bets on Facebook, Dropbox, Airbnb, and Uber, is quietly tapping away on his laptop prior to an invite-only fireside chat organized by VentureSouq, a Dubai-based early-stage equity funding platform.
He is here, wearing his signature baseball cap, to present Code.org, a Seattle-based education non-profit dedicated to expanding access to computer science in schools around the world, of which he is the founder and CEO. The main reason for founding this global social-impact initiative is his belief that mastering computer science is no less than a life-giving skill.
Sonia Weymuller, Founding Partner of VentureSouq, introducing Hadi Partovi at a VSQ Talks event at The Third Line Gallery in Dubai.
Yet, before we expand on that, I decide to focus on his approach to investing in early-stage tech startups, knowing that I will hear something different from a phrase that gets thrown around by every startup investor out there: “I invest in people, not ideas.” Partovi also has a people-first investment philosophy; however, not only can he specifically point out to what “investing in people” actually means for him, but he can even measure it.
The Partovi twins, Hadi and his brother Ali, currently the founder and CEO of Neo, a community of young engineers and the world’s top programmers, were jointly investing in startup founders for 17 years (since 2018, they have decided to focus on individual investments), but only in those who passed their coding test. It started with the founders of Dropbox, Partovi explains. “The best tech companies don’t hire a single technical person without putting them through a lot of tests, so why would an investor consider giving hundreds of thousands of dollars without even one test to show that they can do something?” he says. “Most VCs don’t do this because they themselves don’t know the technology, so they just think whether they like the idea or not, and they just take it for granted that a person can do it. If you look at the companies that have succeeded, the idea often isn’t unique, it’s the execution.” He points out that Google was not the first search engine company, Facebook was not the first social networking platform, and Microsoft was not the first company building an operating system- but what set all three of them apart was having the strongest engineers on board.
The Partovi brothers know this from their own entrepreneurial experience. Partovi may come across as being humble, quiet, and almost reticent, but he is a man who was part of the team that founded and sold Tellme Networks, a voice recognition software developer, to Microsoft for US$800 million in 2007. A decade earlier, in 1998, Ali Partovi was a co-founder of LinkExchange, an internet advertising company, that also got acquired by Microsoft for $265 million. The brothers’ website has a page listing their 34 ongoing investments, which include Airbnb, Classpass, and Uber, and 23 successful exits: Dropbox (IPO), Facebook (IPO), and Zappos (acquired by Amazon), to name just a few. If you scroll down this page, you will also find a list of 10 of their unsuccessful investments, and Partovi is open to say that there had been a few bruises before the brothers developed their investment muscle. “I did invest in a bad idea when I liked the person, but if I look at all my investments, the worst ones were the cases where I liked the idea but I didn’t like the entrepreneur, and also there are investment decisions that I chose not to invest even though I liked the entrepreneur,” he says. “And, I’ve made other mistakes too, such as when one of my college classmates wrote to me in 1998, saying that he had just joined a group of friends from his graduate program to start a company, and he was like, ‘They are the smartest people I know.’ I remember thinking that nobody needs another search engine, and that I wouldn’t invest in this company, that he was just the first employee, and that it was going to be a complete failure. Turned out that the company was Google, and he was their first employee and the Chief Technology Officer. He was also in the top of my class in computer science at Harvard. So, if I could go back and invest in all the best computer scientists I had graduated with, I would have made a lot more money, although I have done well, but I wouldn’t have missed the opportunities like this one.”
A key element of his stressing the importance of the engineering talent is that it was a key factor in how the Partovi brothers came to be where they are today. Born in Tehran, Iran, the twins taught themselves to code on a Commodore 64, which has fueled their passion for programming ever since. The family fled to the US in 1984, following the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Upon earning a master’s degree in computer science from Harvard University, Hadi Partovi rose up the executive ranks at Microsoft, before he went about launching his own startups. And now, he believes that every young person around the world deserves to be propelled forward in life by learning this specific skill. “This is a story about opportunity, and how we can expand who has access to that opportunity, what the jobs of the future will look like, and how we can ensure that everyone gets an opportunity,” Partovi says, on why he advocates computer science training, and why Code.org provides coding curriculum for schools around the country. “In the world of accelerating technological change, the most important thing everybody can learn is how to adapt to new technology. Many schools teach technology, but they teach kids how to use it, whereas we want to teach them how to create technology. And learning to create technology is important, not only because it leads to an opportunity, and not only because of the future of the job market, but because for kids, it’s fun and it teaches them creativity. Creativity is such a natural human desire, something that drives adults, and especially youth, but it doesn’t really exist in the school system.”
Since launching in 2013, Code.org has created the most broadly used curriculum platform for K-12 computer science in the United States. Its computer science classes have reached 30% of American students, while its Hour of Code initiative, a global campaign offering a one-hour introduction to computer science, has reached 10% of students around the world. Furthermore, the Code.org team informs that the nonprofit has more than 100 international partners and supports 63 languages in 180+ countries, with students having created 35 million projects on the platform. Importantly, they also state that 48% of Code.org students are underrepresented minorities. In addition to all of this, Partovi is a firm believer that among the future codingskilled founders tackling the world’s biggest problems, we will see many more women than today. According to a teacher survey by Code.org, 46% of users on the company’s Code.org Studio are female. “There is a misconception that this is for boys not for girls, which is totally not true,” Partovi says. “When girls reach 13 or 14, and if they haven’t tried computer science yet, there are too many other things to do and a pressure to be cool, and that this is not cool for them, because of that social stereotype that this is for boys. So, as a girl, if at 13, you haven’t tried it yet, you have to go against that social stereotype. However, for a boy, the social stereotype is that this is for you, that’s fine. It’s hard to go against the social stereotype for anybody, but it is especially hard for a 13-year-old, when you’ve just started learning how to be secure yourself.” To illustrate, Partovi mentions that Google search results for “software engineers” will mainly show the images of men, whereas the results for “students coding” will show men and women in almost equal numbers.
When it comes to other misconceptions about learning computer science, Partovi mentions the notions people falsely have about its scope and complexity. “I’ve probably made this worse, because of the name of our non-profit, but computer science is more than coding,” he says. “Code.org is about a whole bunch of fields that all are technical, and they are all part of computer science, and I believe that all of them belong in primary and secondary education. Just like you think of science, science has biology and chemistry and physics; you don’t teach just one of them.” Partovi adds, “The other misconception is that this is just for rocket scientists. People imagine that computer science is as hard as calculus, but they don’t realize that six-year-olds can start learning it. If you think about math, first grade math is easy, but 12th grade math could be more difficult, and university math is extra hard. Computer science is the same, the first-grade level of stuff is very easy.”
For all these reasons, Partovi, despite coming across as a quiet man, is ready to make some noise with the recent announcement of the single largest expansion of Code.org’s computer science curriculum. Code.org’s Computer Science (CS) Fundamentals course, geared toward primary school, will be translated into the 10 most widely spoken languages in the non-profit’s database – Chinese (traditional and simplified), French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish- while it will also offer a new offline version of CS Fundamentals to empower schools in low- and no-bandwidth environments to teach computer science to all students.
Expanding into the MENA region is on Partovi’s agenda too. He says, “There are already 500,000 students and about 20,000 teachers in the Arab world using Codeiorg, despite it, for now, being only in English language and only on internet connected computers, meaning that we haven’t done almost any work to overcome the obstacles in the region, we haven’t properly transitioned into Arabic, we don’t yet support use on disconnected computers, we don’t yet work well on smartphones and tablets. Most of the students are in private schools or international schools, because they are using it in English, but it shows that the interest in what we do is already high.”
Region by region, Partovi hopes to achieve Code.org’s mission of changing the educational system, making computer science a permanent part of school curricula. “The education establishment especially doesn’t recognize that this is a field that is as fundamental as mathematics or science,” Partovi says. “Everybody understands that technology is the future, nobody needs to be explained that, and nobody needs to be explained that there is money in technology, and that it is changing everything. What people don’t realize is that when you start learning the alphabet, you can also simultaneously start learning computer science. Nobody questions why we are teaching math or science, but what they do question is whether they should teach computer science. They are not even asking whether they should also teach computer science.”
However, some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent leaders did not need much persuasion- so far, Code.org has been backed by Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Infosys Foundation USA, and many others. Furthermore, Partovi recently helped Pope Francis to write a line of code for an app, during an event organized by the Scholas Occurrentes foundation in Vatican City. “Computer science belongs in primary and secondary schools as a fundamental thing, not just for the students who want to become coders, but for those who want to become lawyers, nurses, farmers, because understanding technology is going to be important,” Partovi concludes. “It’s because building the creativity that computer science teaches will be important, and learning the digital skills that will be required in every career will be important. The biggest obstacle for us is this education administrative mindset. Individual teachers and parents recognize this, but nobody thinks that this should be a part of schools. They want their own child to learn to code, and they don’t think about why schools are not teaching it.”
The most recent manifestation of their widespread use could be assessed as resulting in amongst many things, the calm and easy dethroning of two of North Africa’s long-endured head of states. Their current and discrete assignments appear to be concerned with the complete disposal of the out-dated support systems. One thing is sure in that without these Social Media’s deep penetrations in the region, none of this youthful regeneration could be obtained or at least at such low price.
What is the most popular channel in Saudi Arabia and how many young people still use Facebook? Here are some key facts about one of the most youthful regions on the planet
This article is authored by Damian Radcliffe, the Carolyn S. Chambers professor of journalism at the University of Oregon and Payton Bruni, a journalism student at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, who is also minoring in Arabic Studies.
Since the Arab Spring, there has been increased interest in the role that media, and in particular social media, plays in the region. Our recent report, State of Social Media, Middle East: 2018 explored this topic in depth. Here we outline the implications our research has for journalists.
News consumption for Arab youth is social media-led
“Like their peers in the West, young Arabs today are digital natives,” said Sunil John, founder and CEO of ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, which produces the annual Arab youth survey.
“Young Arabs are now getting their news first on social media, not television. This year, our survey reveals almost two thirds (63 per cent) of young Arabs say they look first to Facebook and Twitter for news. Three years ago, that was just a quarter.”
According to Arabian Business, content creators with more than 10,000 YouTube subscribers enjoy “free access to audio, visual and editing equipment, as well as training programmes, workshops and courses. Those with more than 1,000 subscribers will have access to workshops and events hosted at the space.”
In most countries, Facebook has yet to falter
The social network now has 164 million active monthly users in the Arab world. This is up from 56 million Facebook users just five years earlier.
Interestingly, in contrast to many other markets, 61 per cent of Arab youth say they use Facebook more frequently than a year ago, suggesting the network is still growing.
Egypt, the most populous nation in the region with a population of over 100 million, remains the biggest national market for Facebook in the region, with 24 million daily users and nearly 37 million monthly mobile users.
Saudi Arabia is a social media pioneer
“In 2018, YouTube upstaged long-time leader Facebook to become the most popular social media platform in Saudi Arabia,” reported Global Media Insight, a Dubai based digital interactive agency.
Data shared by the agency showed YouTube has 23.62 million active users, in the country, with Facebook coming in second with 21.95 million users.
Alongside this, although there are about 12 million daily users of Snapchat in the Gulf region (an area comprising Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman) a staggering 9 million of these are in Saudi Arabia (compared to 1 million in UAE).
A complicated relationship with platforms
Despite YouTube’s wide popularity in the MENA region, the company faced some pushback in the past year, after the network was accused of removing online evidence of Syrian chemical attacks.
Meanwhile, YouTube suspended accounts belonging to Syria’s public international news organisation (SANA,) the Ministry of Defence, and the Syrian Presidency “after a report claimed the channels were violating US sanctions and generating revenue from ads,” Al Jazeera reported.
More generally, social networks have a complicated relationship with the region, with service blocks, or the banning of certain features (such as video calling) being relatively common place, and both news organisations and individuals, can fall foul of greater levels of government oversight.
Derogatory posts have resulted in deportations of residents from UAE, while in 2018, the Egyptian government passed legislation categorising social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers as media outlets, thereby exposing them to monitoring by the authorities.
To find out more, download the full study State of Social Media, Middle East: 2018 from the University of Oregon Scholars’ Bank, or view it online via Scribd, SlideShare, ResearchGate and Academia.Edu.
I can still recall my surprise when a book by evolutionary biologist Peter Lawrence entitled “The making of a fly” came to be priced on Amazon at $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping). While my colleagues around the world must have become rather depressed that an academic book could achieve such a feat, the steep price was actually the result of algorithms feeding off each other and spiralling out of control. It turns out, it wasn’t just sales staff being creative: algorithms were calling the shots.
This eye-catching example was spotted and corrected. But what if such algorithmic interference happens all the time, including in ways we don’t even notice? If our reality is becoming increasingly constructed by algorithms, where does this leave us humans?
Inspired by such examples, my colleague Prof Allen Lee and I recently set out to explore the deeper effects of algorithmic technology in a paper in the Journal of the Association for Information Systems. Our exploration led us to the conclusion that, over time, the roles of information technology and humans have been reversed. In the past, we humans used technology as a tool. Now, technology has advanced to the point where it is using and even controlling us.
We humans are not merely cut off from the decisions that machines are making for us but deeply affected by them in unpredictable ways. Instead of being central to the system of decisions that affects us, we are cast out in to its environment. We have progressively restricted our own decision-making capacity and allowed algorithms to take over. We have become artificial humans, or human artefacts, that are created, shaped and used by the technology.
Examples abound. In law, legal analysts are gradually being replaced by artificial intelligence, meaning the successful defence or prosecution of a case can rely partly on algorithms. Software has even been allowed to predict future criminals, ultimately controlling human freedom by shaping how parole is denied or granted to prisoners. In this way, the minds of judges are being shaped by decision-making mechanisms they cannot understand because of how complex the process is and how much data it involves.
In the job market, excessive reliance on technology has led some of the world’s biggest companies to filter CVs through software, meaning human recruiters will never even glance at some potential candidates’ details. Not only does this put people’s livelihoods at the mercy of machines, it can also build in hiring biases that the company had no desire to implement, as happened with Amazon.
In news, what’s known as automated sentiment analysis analyses positive and negative opinions about companies based on different web sources. In turn, these are being used by trading algorithms that make automated financial decisions, without humans having to actually read the news.
In fact, algorithms operating without human intervention now play a significant role in financial markets. For example, 85% of all trading in the foreign exchange markets is conducted by algorithms alone. The growing algorithmic arms race to develop ever more complex systems to compete in these markets means huge sums of money are being allocated according to the decisions of machines.
On a small scale, the people and companies that create these algorithms are able to affect what they do and how they do it. But because much of artificial intelligence involves programming software to figure out how to complete a task by itself, we often don’t know exactly what is behind the decision-making. As with all technology, this can lead to unintended consequences that may go far beyond anything the designers ever envisaged.
But the algorithms that amplified the initial problems didn’t make a mistake. There wasn’t a bug in the programming. The behaviour emerged from the interaction of millions of algorithmic decisions playing off each other in unpredictable ways, following their own logic in a way that created a downward spiral for the market.
The conditions that made this possible occurred because, over the years, the people running the trading system had come to see human decisions as an obstacle to market efficiency. Back in 1987 when the US stock market fell by 22.61%, some Wall Street brokers simply stopped picking up their phones to avoid receiving their customers’ orders to sell stocks. This started a process that, as author Michael Lewis put it in his book Flash Boys, “has ended with computers entirely replacing the people”.
The financial world has invested millions in superfast cables and microwave communications to shave just milliseconds off the rate at which algorithms can transmit their instructions. When speed is so important, a human being that requires a massive 215 milliseconds to click a button is almost completely redundant. Our only remaining purpose is to reconfigure the algorithms each time the system of technological decisions fails.
As new boundaries are carved between humans and technology, we need to think carefully about where our extreme reliance on software is taking us. As human decisions are substituted by algorithmic ones, and we become tools whose lives are shaped by machines and their unintended consequences, we are setting ourselves up for technological domination. We need to decide, while we still can, what this means for us both as individuals and as a society.
AMEInfo published this Expert opinion on how, on August 28, 2018, the Middle East construction looks bad on paper as narrated by Stephan Degenhart, Managing Director at Drees & Sommer Middle East, a leading European consulting, planning and project management enterprise .
“One of the main causes of poor efficiency in the construction industry is a majority of industry players still depend upon paper documentation, such as supply-chain orders, design drawings and daily progress reports to keep track of current processes and deliverables.”
Without digitization, significant delays can be incurred when sharing information.
Relying on paper trails to share documents increases the risk of data being exposed to human error when being captured and analyzed. It is important this is properly managed as detailed performance analytics can help avoid future issues.
Due to the vast amount of information that is processed throughout the duration of a project and the time it takes for a document to change hands, paper trails are notorious for slowing down and hindering the efficiency of processes. This leads to disagreements between clients, developers, and contractors, highlighting an impending need for digitized project-management and solutions to aid collaboration and mobility. A greater uptake of digitization will lead to project management in the construction industry having increased access to mobile-enabled field supervision, digital project planning, digital budgeting and the efficient management of documents across the entire scope of a project.
Digitisation in project management allows for smoother and more efficient processes on site, resulting in significant time and financial savings. For example, a recent study by the consulting firm, Roland Berger, found construction workers only devote 30% of the time to their principal activity. The remaining 70% is consumed by other errands such as looking for materials, transporting materials to complete a job and cleaning up on-site. Introducing digital tools can help streamline these processes and mitigate the loss of both time and financial resources onsite and throughout the construction process. Materials and equipment can be tracked at the click of a button and manpower allocated where and when they are needed.
Software has been developed to ease processes such as the delivery of building materials to the site, ensuring they arrive precisely when they are needed. Storage needs can be significantly reduced as a result. Smart, connected construction machinery can help optimize the utilization of workers and construction vehicles, ensuring certain jobs are not over-allocated with human or technical resource – another common issue digitization has helped many developers overcome.
To support digitization as a growing trend in modern construction, certain technology has already been developed to help locate products and materials. This enables construction workers to devote more time to their principal activity rather than engaging in time-wasting activities that can cause delays to the entire project. Products fitted with RFID2 technology can be identified using magnetic fields. These products can also be registered and scanned, which creates transparency regarding the whereabouts of machinery and human resources on site.
Recent research by McKinsey & Company found construction is currently one of the Middle East’s least digitized industries. The sector stands to achieve significant benefits by adopting technologies that increase productivity as digital collaboration tools, which could raise productivity by as much as 15% and reduce project costs by up to 45%.
Of course, an important tool being used by many in the digitization of the construction industry is Building Information Modeling (BIM). The main benefits presented by using BIM include: minimized planning errors, timely calculation, quantified extra costs and alternative strategies. BIM also provides a digital simulation of the entire project before the first brick is even laid. Due to rapid technological advances and the rate at which the global construction industry is becoming digitally orientated, the absence of digitization is very likely to result in companies falling far behind their more digitally-inclined competitors. Tools such as BIM include all parties involved in the project, from the initial planning phase of the construction process through to completion. This makes processes and responsibilities transparent and comprehensible for everyone, contributing to the efficient implementation of the entire construction process.
The McKinsey & Company study also found 75% of those companies adopting BIM reported a positive return on their investment. The same report found companies who had adopted BIM reported shorter project life cycles and savings on paperwork and material costs. Given these benefits, a number of governments, including those in Britain, Finland, and Singapore mandate the use of BIM for public infrastructure projects.
As the UAE transitions towards a knowledge-based economy, the construction industry is also evolving, so projects can be executed smarter and more efficiently than ever before. By implementing digital methods in project management, construction companies will be able to gain an edge, boosting productivity and efficiency. Conversely, companies that prefer to stick to older more traditional methods are likely to be overtaken due to lower quality of projects they are able to deliver, as well as the inevitable delays to match the standards set by their competition.
UAE companies that choose to adopt and implement these approaches will have to initiate a major shift in their internal planning, design, procurement and construction processes. Investments will need to be made into automation and an effective supply-chain system to ensure streamlined and on-time transportation of materials to the construction site. Companies that decide to integrate their supply chains will also have to plan for other manufacturing-related investments to stay ahead of the curve.
BIM is already much more than a software: as it changes the way people collaborate and the coordination processes, the digital revolution encompasses so much more than software and programmes. Digitisation means digitally enhancing everything that can be improved or optimized. It is easy to use digital tools to manage people and track customer relationships, but the real challenge is changing the way people work. In order for the Middle East’s construction industry to keep pace with international markets, digitization needs to start from the inside, processes need to be revolutionized step-by-step, people need to be trained and there needs to be a shift in thinking towards a more digitized future. This will pave the way for a more productive, cost-efficient, profitable and technologically-driven regional construction industry.
In the MENA countries, the role and impact of the Social Media today have no need to be demonstrated; the so-called Arab Spring events have taken care of that. What followed, however, have sadly been outside its grips, all as reported in the regional media.
Per AP Cairo, Egypt’s parliament has passed a bill targeting popular social media accounts that authorities accuse of publishing “fake news,” the latest move in a five-year-old drive to suppress dissent and silence independent sources of news.
The legislation was adopted late on Monday by the staunchly pro-government chamber, though details of the new bill only emerged on today.
Social activism refers to a broad range of activities which are beneficial to society or particular interest groups. Social activists operate in groups to voice, educate and agitate for change, targeting global crises.
Take, for example, environmental groups such as Greenpeace which aim to curb climate change by targeting governments and major manufacturers with poor environmental records. Or the anti-sweatshop movement, which started with a group of activists in the 19th century organising boycotts aimed at improving the conditions of workers in manufacturing places with low wages, poor working conditions and child labour.
The group 350.org, for example, is made up of climate change activists. The group uses online campaigns and grassroots organising to oppose new coal, oil and gas projects. Its aim is to get society moving closer to clean energy solutions that work for all.
Online activism allows activists to organise events with high levels of engagement, focus and network strength. On the one hand, researchers suggest that the anonymity offered by online communication provides the possibility of expressing the views of marginalised minority groups that might otherwise be punished or sanctioned. Online activities reinforce collective identity by reducing attention to differences that exist within the group (such as education, social class, and ethnicity).
The aim of our research was to develop insights that would obtain better outcomes from online activism, targeting some of society’s most important issues. During our study, we collected data from three YouTube cases of online activism. Our findings suggest that online activism delivers a temporary shock to the organisational elites, help organise collective actions and amplify the conditions for movements to form.
The elites fight back
But these initial outcomes provoke the elites into action, resulting in counter measures – such as increased surveillance to track activists. For example, some governmental authorities intensified internet filtering, blocked access to several websites and decreased the speed of the internet connection to slow down social activism. These measures prompted self-censorship among activists and a loss of interest among the public in relation to the cause and contributed to the ultimate decline of social activism over time.
Our study challenged the optimistic hype around online activism in enabling grassroots social movements by suggesting there is a complex relationship between activists and those groups they are targeting, which makes the outcomes very difficult to predict. As different parties with different interests intervene, they either encourage or inhibit activism.
While encouraging actions can take the form of support (such as the thousands of women around the world who posted on social media sharing their stories under #metoo), inhibiting actions may come in the form of information asymmetry (strategies such as filtering and surveillance) from elites.
Inhibiting strategies are not limited to authoritarian organisations. Senior managers may also monitor email correspondence of staff, set up structures and hierarchies for access to organisational information, and use information provided by secretive companies to check the status of their employees (for example, blacklisting workers perceived as trouble-makers).
Online activists should understand that the dynamics of reaching collective action might not necessarily be the result of critical thinking, lifelong learning or other dimensions of civic engagement. Journalist Nicholas Kristoff has talked about how the anti-sweatshop movement “risks harming the impoverished workers it is hoping to help” by causing mass job redundancies. Similarly, our main message is that online activism could prompt reactions that will result in unintended and long lasting consequences for the activists involved.
A common and frequently used approach that risks these types of consequences is to share emotive information through social media. While this is used to inform and capture people’s attention and mobilise as many people as possible, our study suggests that more thought should be put into the consequences of information sharing and what information is most appropriate to be shared.
Activists may need to spend more time and energy to create and share information that is less emotive and help people learn about the underlying causes of problem. For example, the activism videos we have researched and commonly see on the internet are essentially reactive and emotive.
Instead of focusing on the problem and the need for change, activists can share information that explains why and how the current situation has been created and what can be learned for the future. Online activism in such manner can gradually lead to the development of people who are capable of generating new knowledge and wisdom to respond to changing social environments. However, that requires strategic patience and that is often a scarce resource among activists desperate for change.
As foreseen by many, this article titled ‘Inside the dark web of the UAE’s surveillance state’ could only be an illustration of the UAE’s increasing involvement in regional tensions. This has as per the article been kicked off by the 2011 spring uprisings in the region but would signal the likelihood of a long period of severe frictions between the members of the GCC. In effect, the nationals as well as the foreign residents of this membership are closer to one another as flows after flows in all direction of social media commentaries could prove and ascertain their ethno-socio and business proximity. The UAE’s surveillance infrastructure by international cybersecurity “Dealers” could well have ignored that aspect of the populations.
This article is written by Joe Odell, press officer for the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE. It was published by the Middle East Eye and is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.
The above picture taken on January 11, 2018, shows the skyline of the Dubai Marina (AFP)
The nuts and bolts of the Emirati surveillance state moved into the spotlight on 1 February as the Abu Dhabi-based cybersecurity company DarkMatter allegedly stepped “out of the shadows” to speak to the international media.
Its CEO and founder, Faisal al-Bannai, gave a rare interview to the Associated Press at the company’s headquarters in Abu Dhabi, in which he absolved his company of any direct responsibility for human rights violations in the UAE.
Established in the UAE in 2015, DarkMatter has always maintained itself to be a commercially driven company. Despite the Emirati government constituting 80 percent of DarkMatter’s customer base and the company previously describing itself as “a strategic partner of the UAE government”, its CEO was at pains to suggest that it was independent from the state.
According to its website, the company’s stated aim is to “protect governments and enterprises from the ever-evolving threat of cyber attack” by offering a range of non-offensive cybersecurity services.
Seeking skilled hackers
Though DarkMatter defines its activities as defensive, an Italian security expert, who attended an interview with the company in 2016, likened its operations to “big brother on steroids” and suggested it was deeply rooted within the Emirati intelligence system.
Simone Margaritelli, also a former hacker, alleged that during the interview he was informed of the UAE’s intention to develop a surveillance system that was “capable of intercepting, modifying, and diverting (as well as occasionally obscuring) traffic on IP, 2G, 3G, and 4G networks”.
Although he was offered a lucrative monthly tax-free salary of $15,000, he rejected the offer on ethical grounds.
Furthermore, in an investigation carried out by The Intercept in 2016, sources with inside knowledge of the company said that DarkMatter was “aggressively” seeking skilled hackers to carry out offensive surveillance operations. This included plans to exploit hardware probes already installed across major cities in order to track, locate and hack any person at any time in the UAE.
In many respects, the UAE’s surveillance infrastructure has been built by a network of international cybersecurity “dealers” who have willingly profited from supplying the Emirati regime with the tools needed for a modern-day surveillance state
As with other states, there is a need for cybersecurity in the UAE. As the threat of cyber attacks has increased worldwide, there have been numerous reports of attempted attacks from external actors on critical infrastructure in the country.
Since the Arab uprisings of 2011, however, internal “cyber-security governance”, which has been utilised to quell the harbingers of revolt and suppress dissident voices, has become increasingly important to the Emirati government and other regimes across the region.
In the UAE, as with other GCC states, this has found a legislative expression in the cybercrime law. Instituted in 2012, its vaguely worded provisions essentially provide a legal basis to detain anybody who criticises the regime online.
A network of Emirati government agencies and state-directed telecommunications industries have worked in loose coordination with international arms manufacturers and cybersecurity companies to transform communications technologies into central components of authoritarian control.
In 2016, an official from the Dubai police force announced that authorities were monitoring users across 42 social media platforms, while a spokesperson for the UAE’s Telecommunication Regulatory Authority similarly boasted that all social media profiles and internet sites were being tracked by the relevant agencies.
Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi meets with US President Donald Trump in Washington in May 2017 (AFP)
As a result, scores of people who have criticised the UAE government on social media have been arbitrarily detained, forcefully disappeared and, in many cases, tortured.
Last year, Jordanian journalist Tayseer al-Najjar and prominent Emirati academic Nasser bin Ghaith received sentences of three and 10 years respectively for comments made on social media. Similarly, award-winning human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor has been arbitrarily detained for nearly a year due to his online activities.
This has been a common theme across the region in the post-“Arab Spring” landscape. In line with this, a lucrative cybersecurity market opened up across the Middle East and North Africa, which, according to the US tech research firm Gartner, was valued at $1.3bn in 2016.
A modern-day surveillance state
In many respects, the UAE’s surveillance infrastructure has been built by a network of international cybersecurity “dealers” who have willingly profited from supplying the Emirati regime with the tools needed for a modern-day surveillance state.
Moreover, it has been reported that DarkMatter has been hiring a range of top talent from across the US national security and tech establishment, including from Google, Samsung and McAfee. Late last year, it was revealed that DarkMatter was managing an intelligence contract that had been recruiting former CIA agents and US government officials to train Emirati security officials in a bid to bolster the UAE’s intelligence body.
UK military companies also have a foothold in the Emirati surveillance state. Last year, it was revealed that BAE Systems had been using a Danish subsidiary, ETI Evident, to export surveillance technologies to the UAE government and other regimes across the region.
‘The million dollar dissident’
Although there are officially no diplomatic relations between the two countries, in 2016, Abu Dhabi launched Falcon Eye, an Israeli-installed civil surveillance system. This enables Emirati security officials to monitor every person “from the moment they leave their doorstep to the moment they return to it”, a source close to Falcon Eye told Middle East Eye in 2015.
The source added that the system allows work, social and behavioural patterns to be recorded, analysed and archived: “It sounds like sci-fi but it is happening in Abu Dhabi today.”
Moreover, in a story that made headlines in 2016, Ahmed Mansoor’s iPhone was hacked by the UAE government with software provided by the Israeli-based security company NSO Group. Emirati authorities reportedly paid $1m for the software, leading international media outlets to dub Mansoor “the million-dollar dissident.”
Mansoor’s case is illustrative of how Emirati authorities have conducted unethical practices in the past. In recent years, the UAE has bought tailored software products from international companies such as Hacking Team to engage in isolated, targeted attacks on human rights activists, such as Mansoor.
The operations of DarkMatter, as well as the installation of Falcon Eye, suggest, however, that rather than relying on individual products from abroad, Emirati authorities are now building a surveillance system of their own and bringing operations in-house by developing the infrastructure for a 21st-century police state.