Kollona Amn app turns citizens into social network police
A Saudi app that allows ordinary people to “play the police” may have alerted authorities to tweets by a student sentenced to 34 years in prison that drew international condemnation.
Just weeks after the verdict against Salma al-Shehab – a doctoral candidate at Britain’s University of Leeds – human rights groups say another woman has been sentenced to 45 years for her social media posts. her – highlighting a crackdown on women online.
According to DAWN, a Washington-based human rights group, Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani was found guilty of “using the internet to tear down the fabric of (Saudi Arabia) society”.
While it’s not clear how Qahtani’s posts were discovered, rights groups allege that Shehab was reported by citizens using Kollona Amn, a government app that allows citizens to issue official alerts. rights about everyday incidents such as road accidents or suspicious behavior.
“I went into your account, and I found it so pitiful and full of trash, I took a few pictures and sent them to Kollona Amn,” one user posted below Shehab’s comment, one photo. screenshot shown by Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Kollona Amn, which means “we are all secure” in Arabic, has been downloaded over a million times from the Google Play store.
While it sees itself as a utility app for speeding up “rescue missions”, human rights campaigners say it helps the authorities create a broader network for activists and people. Dissent is seen as a threat to the Saudi government.
“The problem in Saudi Arabia is that their understanding of crime is much broader than it is,” said Rothna Begum, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). identifiable under international law.
“It’s too broad and vague; anything can be a crime.”
Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Information and Communications was not available for comment, but officials have previously said the country has no political prisoners.
Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Reuters in July: “We have prisoners in Saudi Arabia who have committed crimes and have been brought to trial and found guilty by our courts.”
Human rights groups say government-run Twitter scammers scour social media for dissidents, harassing anyone who strays from official lines.
But without the kind of surveillance done through the Kollona Amn app, human rights activists say it would be difficult for the government to detect Shehab’s Twitter presence.
Twitter users can use Kollona Amn to flag other users’ tweets by either tagging the app’s account or handled by the country’s state security agency.
Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and communications at ALQST, a human rights group, said she has documented at least eight other cases of online accounts tagging Kollona Amn’s account under tweets from activists. work.
“They really want civil society to be invisible, they don’t want people to exist, not even online,” she added.
Around the world, similar apps have sparked a wave of digital vigils – from tools that allow people to chase the police to speeding drivers to break COVID-19 rules. .
They are often controversial.
In South Africa, WhatsApp chat groups that act as neighborhood watchers have been criticized as racist, while in India so-called government-recruited cyber volunteers hunt down content. online content that they consider illegal or anti-national.
FOUNDATION AND MISSION
In Saudi Arabia, this is not the first time a popular government-run app has drawn criticism from human rights groups, despite official claims that the tool is only intended to make people happy. Daily tasks become easier and safer.
The Tawakalna app – which means “we trust in God” in Arabic – originated as Saudi Arabia’s COVID-19 tracing tool.
It now includes a reporting feature that allows citizens to file complaints, such as about suspected construction violations, rights campaigners said.
Another app, Balagh, invites people to report corrupt government employees and commercial violations, but is sometimes used to tackle personal tasks, they added.
The Absher app is used by Saudis who sponsor foreign workers to allow their employees to leave the country, but critics say it is often intended to limit free movement by workers living in this kingdom.
According to a 2019 report by HRW, employers can do this by issuing exit and entry visas with specific dates or by controlling their exit visas.
The app was launched in 2015 when women needed a male guardian’s approval to travel, making it easier for men to control the movements of their female relatives.
Taha Alhajji, a legal consultant for the European Organization for Human Rights-Saudi Arabia, persuading ordinary Saudis to spy on and attack each other is often seen as a national duty.
“The other method is fear: If someone knows of a violation and doesn’t report it, they are a party to the violation. The person who covered the crime is considered an accomplice.”
The rulings against Shehab and Qahtani have shaken Saudi Arabia’s activist community and chilled the country’s digital space, activists say.
Since Shehab’s conviction, social media users have scoured the personal accounts of her and those of her family, digging through old posts in an attempt to discredit her. .
One user shared comments posted by her parents, tagging the Twitter accounts of Kollona Amn and the state security service (PSS), according to screenshots seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I hope @pss_ar and @kamnapp consider the information above and consider her father and mother responsible,” one user entered below Shehab’s father’s post.
Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the Lebanon-based Gulf Center for Human Rights, said the verdict against the mother-of-two was seen as a warning to the kingdom’s human rights defenders.
“They feel like they’re being watched everywhere they go, even when they’re in exile,” he said.
Reporting by Nazih Osseiran; Edited by Helen Popper.