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'Prying eyes': Fears over opening of Google Cloud region in Saudi Arabia

Critics warn against placing millions of users’ information under jurisdiction of government known for surveillance
Snapchat’s parent company, Snap Inc, has been named as one of the anchor tenants for the new Saudi-based cloud services (Reuters)

Media monitoring groups have requested the immediate halting of Google’s plan to establish a new Google Cloud region in Saudi Arabia, voicing concern over data protection and privacy.

The US technology giant has already announced it will be storing Snapchat data on the servers based in Saudi Arabia, placing millions of users’ personal information under the jurisdiction of a government with a longstanding record of surveillance.

“Saudi Arabia and human rights safeguards, historically, do not mix,” said Marwa Fatafta, MENA policy manager at Access Now, a group that defends the digital rights of users.

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“A new Google Cloud region in the kingdom is dangerous, and it is imperative that Google outlines, in no uncertain terms, how they plan to protect data and people’s rights from the prying eyes of the Saudi regime.”

"The government of Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record includes silencing activists, human and women’s rights defenders, and journalists, and violating the basic rights of its citizens through extrajudicial killings, detention and torture, and the use of spyware to track and censor," Access Now said in a statement.  

"This troubling history raises serious concerns about the possibility of facilitating and whitewashing future human rights abuses."

Snapchat’s parent company, Snap Inc, has been named as one of the anchor tenants for the new Saudi-based cloud services. 

"Considering the app’s prevalence in the region, with over 17 million users, the potential for government demands for content data or metadata, and the increased opportunity to control online discourse, are both of particular concern," Access Now said.

In a statement released last month about its new Saudi Arabia service, Google quoted Karl D'Adamo, Senior Director for Infrastructure at Snap Inc, as saying: "In order to deliver a positive user experience, it is important to put our infrastructure as close as possible to our customers.

"Google Cloud's continuing expansion into additional regions will enable us to better serve our hundreds of millions of customers around the world, no matter where they may be."

However, D'Adamo's quotes were later removed from the statement.

'Deadly consequences'

Google has partnered with Saudi Aramco Development Company, a subsidiary of the kingdom's oil giant Aramco, to offer its cloud service.

"In 2018, we announced a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Aramco to jointly explore establishing cloud services in the region," Google said, in comments about the project. 

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"Building on that MoU, we concluded an agreement in December 2020 and Google Cloud will now deploy and operate a cloud region in Saudi Arabia, while a local strategic reseller, sponsored by Aramco, will offer cloud services to customers, with a particular focus on businesses in the kingdom." 

On Tuesday, Access Now and the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), a technology law clinic based at the University of Ottawa, wrote open letters to Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Snap Inc CEO Evan Spiegel outlining their concerns.

Among the issues the organisations asked to be addressed were: what security measures are in place to protect the data? What legal standards do Google Cloud and Snap consider necessary for secure and sustainable operations, and how does Saudi Arabia meet those indicators? And what understandings exist between the Saudi government and the companies on government access to data?

Vivek Krishnamurthy, director of CIPPIC, said: “This directly places millions of people at risk, the consequences of which could be deadly.

“With data stored in Saudi Arabia, Google and Snap will find themselves with little ability to resist government demands for users’ personal information,” he said.

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