Will Google face legal action in Saudi Arabia and the UAE after breach admission?

Awad Mustafa

Published: Updated:

Google maybe subject to criminal and legal action after the media giant has admitted that it is tracking people’s phones around the world even when they turn off location services and remove their Sim card.

In a story published Wednesday by The Times of London, Google were quoted to have said that the tracking would end by the ‘end of this month’

According to The Times, since the beginning of the year, Android phones, which use Google’s mobile operating system, have been recording the locations of mobile masts and sending the data back to Google — regardless of people’s location settings.

“This is an admission of a breach of all the systems enabled by the company,” said Dr Abdulrazaq al-Morjan, an information security and digital forensics expert based in Saud Arabia.

“This tracking means that even senior officials who use Android devices are being tracked, according to the Kingdom’s cybercrime laws this can be prosecuted as an illegal breach of devices,” Dr al-Morjan told Al Arabiya English.

Quartz, a news website that discovered the activity, said this gave the search and media giant access to data about people’s movements that infringed upon their reasonable expectation of privacy.

People are generally aware that they are tracked when they enable location services or make phone calls, but would be unaware that their movements could be followed at other times.

“In terms of the law in the UAE, Google latest admission is of the utmost concern,” said Claire Grainger, Senior Partner at Dubai based Naji Beidoun Advocates & Legal Consultants.

“Privacy of the individual in the UAE is of paramount importance such that the Federal Government aware of such invasions has brought in the Cybercrime Law, which under Article 21 which prohibits the invasion of privacy of an individual, by means of a computer network and/ or electronic information system and/or information technology, without the individual's consent and unless otherwise authorized by law,” she told Al Arabiya English.

According to Grainger this issue is generally regulated by the Telecommunications Law and the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA),

“If Google is not careful it may well find itself the subject of not only regulatory fines in the UAE for violation of the regulations imposed by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority but also breach of individual consumer rights leading to civil and criminal actions,” she said.

The investigation by Quartz found that phones with a mobile data or wifi connection sent information to Google each time they came within range of a mast, The Times reported. When Android devices were connected to a wifi network, they would send the tower addresses to Google even when they didn’t have Sim cards installed.

Google said that it collected the data to “further improve the speed and performance of message delivery” and the information was not stored but “immediately discarded”. After Quartz contacted Google, it said the phones would no longer send this data to the company from the end of the month.

Data from a single mobile mast can only provide an approximate idea of a phone’s location, but data from several towers can be used to triangulate a device’s location to within a few streets in urban areas. This could potentially paint a detailed picture of the owner’s movements.

Telecommunications regulators in the Middle East and Arabian Gulf region have yet to respond to the revelations.

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