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Google shareholders warn Cloud data in Saudi Arabia could be used for spying

Director of consumer group said data would be served on a 'silver platter to Saudi’s top hitmen', New York Post reports
A man watches Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on his telephone as he speaks during the Future Investment Initiative conference, on 28 January 2021 (AFP)

Google investors have raised concerns over a Cloud computing centre that the tech giant is developing in partnership with Saudi Arabia's state oil giant Aramco, warning that it will enable the kingdom to spy on people, including activists and journalists. 

According to the New York Post, shareholders have expressed unease over the partnership between Google and Aramco, claiming that the company risks serving "sensitive data on a silver platter to Saudi's top hitmen".

Rewan al-Haddad, the campaign director for SumofUs, a global consumer group that aims to curb the power of big corporations, told the newspaper she was concerned that Saudi authorities "will stop at no end to snuff out anyone who dares challenge their autocratic rule and human rights abuses".

"Google is sidestepping its own human rights standards in favour of growth and profits, and while that’s not necessarily shocking, it puts the lives of activists and dissidents in the region at serious risk. A Google cloud centre under Saudi’s jurisdiction would basically serve our sensitive data on a silver platter to Saudi’s top hitmen," she said.

According to the Post, at an annual shareholder meeting in June, Google shareholders will vote on a proposal from SumOfUs that would require the company to release a report on human rights risks related to the project, as well as detail any steps it’s taking to mitigate those risks.

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Google has reportedly tried to block the resolution from being presented, but the Securities and Exchange Commission rejected the argument and ruled that the resolution must continue, the Post reported.

"When making business decisions about where to locate data centres, we consider a number of important factors, including human rights and security, as well as how to optimize our overall data infrastructure so as to provide a high level of performance, reliability, and sustainability, and we undertake human rights due diligence when expanding data centre operations into new locations," Google said in the filing when it urged shareholders to vote against the resolution. 

Last year, a coalition of campaign groups - including Human Rights Watch, ALQST, Access Now, and Mena Rights Group - urged Google to halt its plans, citing human rights concerns in the kingdom.

"Saudi Arabia’s recent track record of repression of all public dissent, alleged espionage and infiltration of technology platforms, use of cyber-surveillance software to spy on dissidents, and a notorious justice system that flagrantly violates due process rights make [it] an unsafe country to host Google Cloud services," the rights groups said.

Saudi authorities have repeatedly been accused of using big tech to crack down on dissent within the kingdom and among political dissidents living abroad.

Two former employees of Twitter were accused in 2015 of accessing and passing on the details of more than 6,000 users critical of Riyadh to a Saudi official with close ties to the royal family. 

Bloomberg reported in 2020 that the actions of the alleged spies directly led to the disappearance and later incarceration of Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, a Saudi aid worker who ran an anonymous Twitter account critical of government policy.

Sadhan was later sentenced to 20 years in prison.