The Guy Who Saved Your iPhone From Hackers Is Stuck in a UAE Jail
By Tanya O'Carroll, Technology and Human Rights Adviser
When most of the tech world first heard his name, activist Ahmed Mansoor had already spent more than a decade fighting against human rights abuses in his native United Arab Emirates (UAE).
But it was a series of suspicious text messages he received last year that briefly shone turned the tech world's attention to Mansoor, a poet and blogger who campaigns for freedom of expression and civil and political rights. The messages, delivered to his iPhone 6 on 10 and 11 August, promised to reveal "new secrets" about detainees tortured in UAE prisons, and contained a hyperlink to an unfamiliar website.
It would have been easy to click. But Mansoor was hyper vigilant—he had to be. He'd already been hacked twice by the Emirati authorities, and the suffocating surveillance he knew he was under had in the past led to a beating, a spell in prison and the imposition of a travel ban.
Sensing something wasn't right, he passed the messages on to security researchers, who alerted Apple to a series of software flaws in the iPhone which made users vulnerable to hacking. Apple corrected the problem quickly, and Ahmed was credited for a discovery which had helped improve security for millions of iPhone users worldwide.
"While updating your software, you should pause for a moment to thank human rights activist, Ahmed Mansoor," said Ronald Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab.
The spyware which Mansoor had been targeted with was so sophisticated and expensive that Citizen Lab researchers dubbed him the "million dollar dissident".
But life as a dissident in the UAE is bleak. Fast forward to 2017 and Ahmed Mansoor is in solitary confinement in a UAE jail. In the six weeks since he was seized in the middle of the night from his apartment, he has effectively been denied access to a lawyer. To make matters worse, he has been allowed just one face-to-face visit with his wife and has not seen his children since his arrest.
Meanwhile, the UAE continues its ascent as the bright new star of the tech world, the destination of choice for start-ups seeking access to emerging markets across the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
The same authorities who have harassed and pursued Ahmed Mansoor for his peaceful activism are increasingly successful in their efforts to rebrand the country as a 'Silicon Oasis'. Twitter, Facebook and even Apple have headquartered their Middle East operations in Dubai's impressive high rises, and the emirate's ruler, Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, has called the UAE an "incubator of innovation and future technology".
But the million dollar dissident gets no part in these dreams for the future, and the tech community has moved on while he languishes in jail.
The charges against Mansoor are spurious. He is accused of using social media websites to: "publish false information and rumours;" promote a "sectarian and hate-incited agenda;" and "publish false and misleading information" that harms national unity and damages the country's reputation. It is deeply ironic that the UAE, a state which claims to be so excited about the opportunities technology brings, is so intent on throttling freedom of expression online.
We must not be fooled by the glittering façade of the 'Silicon Oasis'. Behind it is a tightening noose of repression and fear, and while the lights may be on, voices of dissent have been switched off one by one.
No matter where we live, we all have something to learn from Mansoor's experience. It is emblematic of the risks we are all facing in an age of increased state surveillance, when new technology helps the most ruthless governments crack down on citizens who dare to disrupt the status quo. His vigilance last August disarmed them of one of these new tools, and we owe him a great debt.
Anyone who cares about privacy; anyone who is uncomfortable with the way that surveillance technology creates a one-way window for governments to look into, should be shouting from the rooftops about Ahmed Mansoor.
Companies rushing to grab a piece of the UAE should remember that, while their presence flatters the image of the Emirati authorities, their operations are subject to the same laws that are systematically stamping out all signs of dissent in the country. Companies also need to be mindful of human rights abuses in the UAE, and ensure that their presence there does not facilitate online censorship or surveillance. For example they must think carefully about how they would respond to requests by the authorities for content removal or user data.
We should also remember that we are not impotent when it comes to this kind of injustice. The UAE cares about its reputation, its 'brand'. If it wants to continue projecting the image of a tech-savvy country open to innovation and investment, the UAE needs the buy-in of major technology companies and their employees. The complaints of the human rights community may fall on deaf ears, but the UAE will listen if – and when - the tech community speaks up.
There are things that can be done. Sign this petition by NGOs from the tech community calling for Ahmed's release. Use every platform you have to speak out, to keep Ahmed on the agenda. If you are doing business in the UAE, consider the human rights risks and make plans to mitigate against them.
The imprisonment of Ahmed Mansoor was a warning to human rights defenders by a government determined to crush dissent at any cost. But it should also serve as a warning to the tech world: not to be blinded by the bright lights, and to remember that it is the Ahmed Mansoors of this world who defend our human rights and make technology safer for us all.