Category Archives: Abu Dhabi

Giving and taking personal data

Update July 7 c.11.45pm: Since I wrote this piece this has been tweeted, which is disconcerting though I don’t have the full context.



While the Prism exposé was a fantastic scoop for The Guardian, that the US is spying on the planet wasn’t that surprising. America is a superpower of surveillance and intelligence gathering is a pretty basic part of national security, even if the scale could be a bit startling. At least they’re not going through your post (or are they?).

When I lived in the Middle East any post I got from home was regularly opened and looked at. I didn’t have any personal letters going through, at least not that I remember. It was mostly magazines and newspapers from home, sent by dad. There were probably a few bank statements too. Mostly the envelopes were opened and taped shut again, but there was one occasion when one of the office managers came over to me with a whole mess of stuff that had been opened and but into a large clear plastic bag that was then stapled shut. She pulled a face and said something along the lines of “err…” One of my colleagues suggested they’d been looking for porn – a racy article in a foreign newspaper might well be cut out or blotted out with marker. I wish I’d kept a photo of it. The magazines in my batch were Forbes and Newsweek, in case you’re wondering.

Other people had things confiscated, although the powers that be wouldn’t necessarily tell you that. They might tell your boss though. We got an email from the editor one day asking us all to be careful about what was sent to us (painkillers and Bibles were the examples given). Somebody is always watching. After that I became more concerned about what I gave away about myself and what I got up to. Privacy does matter.

While the Abu Dhabi authorities would argue it was well within their rights to check on things coming into the country (and it is under law), I would be surprised if they didn’t have some log of it somewhere. This is mild stuff in the world of surveillance. Other journalists in other places have had their phones tapped or been followed. And we all know how journalists at News International hacked people’s phones in the hunt for a story. However, I’m not suggesting this is on the scale of the NSA’s activities, which has seen it collect and request data from major companies such as Microsoft. I don’t agree with it in the slightest, but I’m not wholly surprised by it either.

The US has argued that one cannot expect 100% security without giving up 100% privacy. While most people will have nothing to worry about, it’s a dangerous precedent because it’s a short step from collecting online information for national security reasons to monitoring everything for internal security reasons. It’s not exactly as Ice T once put it, “freedom of speech, just watch what you say”, and it’s definitely not like Big Brother from 1984, but it’s easy to see how it could be that way. Somebody is always watching.

A post I wrote years ago about the Pentagon resulted in somebody from the Pentagon visiting I was oddly flattered and yet slightly worried, as wee me wouldn’t stand much chance against the US cybermilitary – and generally speaking cyberwar techniques have improved dramatically since then.

There are pros and cons to giving data away. Information is a valuable commodity, and privacy just as valuable. What we put up online – or what is learned about our activities online – can benefit or come back to haunt us. I’m quite a private person yet I’ve made my peace with giving up a bit of data if it means improved services. For ages I kept all location services turned off on my phone and iPad, but in the past couple of months I’ve pretty much left them on so as to use my mobile devices to their potential. It’s not 1984, where I now love Big Brother. I’m giving a smidgen of what I have as it means I can get more. I suppose data is currency.

Data is a double-edged sword. On one side, you could argue that a society that is more open about everything online could encourage a more open and society. On the other side, it means a higher likelihood of being more vulnerable to identity theft or just general snooping. However, if things are out in the open and you’re taking charge of it, it can’t be used against you effectively. Even then, though, there’s no guarantee that what’s being shared is accurate as it’s easy to change one’s identity online.

For a journalist, raw data is an invaluable source of stories. We can take reams and reams of figures and plot them on charts in interesting ways. But imagine the horror is we were to do something like that based on your Google searches or Gmail chats.

As a journalist, and particularly as a senior one in a national newspaper, I’m comfortable with being out there and available. Anybody who wants to can follow me on Twitter or send me a message on Facebook, though I keep higher privacy settings there than I do on Twitter.

Every time we google something we’re giving away a bit of information about ourselves. I can look at the visitor logs for this site and see where people are coming from, broadly speaking, and usually down to the IP address. There’s no point in getting indignant because somebody is watching, or at least can watch, us online. It’s been happening for years and it’s not going to change. What we can do, though, is be more careful about what we post, how we search, and who can see what. Don’t give it all away for free is what I would say. Make people earn it.

What say you?

A child in limbo

My old employer The National reports that Leen Omar, three, is stuck in the United Arab Emirates following her parents’ divorce because she has no legal standing, despite having been born there. Her father insists that only Jordanian law applies.

Leen was born in Abu Dhabi in February 2007 but cannot travel outside the country, receive state services or even be registered for nursery school because her father’s presence is required for her to obtain a passport. OM [her father], a Jordanian-Palestinian, left the country after divorcing the child’s mother, a Syrian-Palestinian, in August 2006.

The mother cannot apply for a passport for her child because she does not have a Syrian passport, only immigration documents for Palestinian refugees issued by the Syrian government.

Citizenship is tightly regulated in the UAE. While the government can bestow it upon individuals for a variety of reasons, usually public service or contribution, birth entitles one to basically nothing. If I recall correctly, children can live in the country on the strength of their father’s visa, but require one of their own once they reach adulthood. If anybody knows any better, do let me know.

The sights of home

This, which I took while out walking, is not near my home, but is still the kind of leafy sight that greets me in the mornings (minus the shell).

Damp leaves are piling up on the front lawn and I even see the occasional flicker of frost on parked cars and shaded patches of grass. It isn’t raining, but the air holds no warmth.

Winter is back, and I’m feeling the cold more than ever before. This from a man who hails from a country the Romans once dismissed as “icy Hibernia”, and where the people were driven to savagery by the constant cold.

I wonder how much Abu Dhabi changed my physiology: I acclimatised quite well, in fact better than I had expected, thanks in part to arriving in December and so being around as the temperature climbed. But although I grew to handle 42C and even higher, I feel the chill in the mornings here. Even when the temperature is about 13C – good for this time of year – it nips a touch too much; this is a new experience for me.

I’ve found myself buying and, more importantly, wearing jumpers and the like, which I wouldn’t normally do until the dead of December. As I walked to work the other day I realised my hands were turning purple from the cold – and it wasn’t as bad as it could be.

Can one re-acclimatise to one’s native environment? Is it psychological? Did I feel all this before but am only now, with the benefit of experiencing a different climate, able to appreciate and define it?

As I write this it is 36C in Abu Dhabi and 7C in Cork. Before my departure I would never have thought that 36C would be lovely weather.

There's always room for a new species of cat

The felines that roam the streets of Abu Dhabi have finally been recognised as a species in their own right: the Arabian Mau. One of these used to sleep on the porch outside my building, pressed up against the glass on humid, sticky nights so as to enjoy the cold air blowing under the door. I still regret not taking photos of the scrawny wee thing and its kitten.

Unfortunately, there is a concerted campaign to cull stray cats in the UAE. Petra Mueller, who named the species (“mau” just means “cat”, as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now),

hopes her discovery will help change attitudes towards the animals in the Middle East.

“Cats in the Arab world are traditionally thought to bring bad luck,”she said.“Unfortunately, a programme has been introduced in the UAE where street cats are trapped and then destroyed.

“I hope that the discovery of this unique breed will boost the identity of cats here and encourage people to buy or adopt them, as they are better suited for the climate.

“These cats are not only the national cats of the UAE but they can also be found all over the Gulf.”

Passports for phones

Cory Doctrow doesn’t seem too impressed with Britain’s plan to require passports for the purchase of mobile phones; the move is aimed primarily at prepaid/pay-as-you-go phones. His objections are understandable enough, given the implications for civil liberties. As The Times reports:

The pay-as-you-go phones are popular with criminals and terrorists because their anonymity shields their activities from the authorities. But they are also used by thousands of law-abiding citizens who wish to communicate in private.

The move aims to close a loophole in plans being drawn up by GCHQ, the government’s eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham, to create a huge database to monitor and store the internet browsing habits, e-mail and telephone records of everyone in Britain.

The “Big Brother” database would have limited value to police and MI5 if it did not store details of the ownership of more than half the mobile phones in the country.

I understand the concerns, I really do. However, I had to provide a copy of my passport when I went to buy a mobile in the UAE (and had to provide a copy or the original document for just about anything) and didn’t find it a big deal. I’m certainly someone who enjoys his privacy, so I guess I was just rolling with it. That said I’m fairly sure the UAE didn’t keep my details for use by the intelligence services.