Greece bans spyware, Belarus ramps up web surveillance, and Twitter deepens its Saudi ties
Greece will ban the sale of spyware, according to Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The announcement comes as new details emerge about journalists and an opposition party leader who were targeted with Predator, a mobile surveillance software manufactured by the North Macedonian company Cytrox. Mitsotakis claims Greece will be the first country to enact substantive and effective legislation to explicitly ban such surveillance tech. A Greek parliamentary inquiry into the scandal is ongoing but Mitsotakis has already been accused of seeking to stifle the inquiry by blocking key witnesses from testifying. It seems unlikely that other countries will enact similar bans, with Predator already supplying its spyware to Egypt, Armenia, Serbia, Spain and Indonesia, among other countries, to enable authorities to track political opponents, journalists and critics.
Belarus’ KGB may soon have a backdoor to most network-based communications in the country. Under a decree issued by president Alexander Lukashenko last month, website owners and telecom operators will be required to connect to a state-controlled monitoring system that will capture all kinds of data about people’s day-to-day online activities. How will this actually work? That part is less clear, but the intent — to impose even stronger surveillance mechanisms on Belarusian citizens — is unmistakable.
Two TikTok stars in Nigeria were sentenced to 20 lashes each after they used the social media site to mock the governor in their northern state of Kano for alleged land grabbing, corruption and “sleeping on the job.” The pair was also forced to pay a fine, clean the courtroom for 30 days and publicly apologize on social media. Kano is one of a dozen northern, majority-Muslim states in Nigeria where the Sharia legal system has been used alongside the country’s secular laws since 2000.
Last week, I wrote about Egyptian digital activist and political prisoner Alaa Abd El Fattah, who has been on hunger strike since April and stopped drinking water on November 6, to coincide with the launch of the COP27 climate summit in Sharm El-Sheikh. As of publication time, family members reported that Abd El Fattah was receiving medical attention and that judicial authorities had given his attorney permission to visit him. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, his sister Sanaa Seif said the family is in a panic. “None of us really wants to face the reality that my brother is about to die,” she said.
ELON MUSK AND A SAUDI PRINCE ARE TWITTER’S BIGGEST SHAREHOLDERS — WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
There is a lot that we still don’t know about how Elon Musk will govern Twitter, but if you follow the money, and the firings, a rough picture begins to emerge. The company is apparently bleeding $4 million every day, as big advertisers like American Express, Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson (and smaller ones, like Coda Story) have stopped buying ads on Twitter due to concerns about hateful content resurging on the platform under Musk’s reign. Nevertheless, researchers and engineers who were wrestling with complex issues like racism, hate speech and algorithmic bias were axed this week, along with the entire human rights team.
Musk also disbanded Twitter’s team in Accra, which was the relatively new home to the company’s only HQ in Africa. Though mainly focused on increasing business in the region, it brought some hope that Twitter would become more consistent about policy decisions there, rather than making ad hoc forays into regional politics and social movements, as it did under Jack Dorsey. Despite being South African, Musk is evidently not concerned enough to maintain Twitter’s presence on the continent.
How will the company handle relationships with foreign governments from now on? That may depend on Elon’s business interests. Last week, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (alongside Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding Company) became the second-largest investor in Twitter after Musk himself. While investors don’t typically get special access to company information, these two individuals are hardly typical, and the Saudis are known for going after their critics on Twitter by any means necessary. See the KSA’s notorious digital trolling operations, and the roughly 6,000 people that had their data stolen in 2015 by two Twitter employees who turned out to be Saudi spies. One of them was Omar Abdulaziz, a close contact of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was later murdered by Saudi operatives in Istanbul.
Looking ahead, if the Saudis want the private data of, say, a hard-nosed journalist, will they even need to send in spies? Or will they just ask Elon? If they do, he probably can’t afford to say no. Business Insider’s Linette Lopez made a similar point about China, where Tesla has a factory on state-owned land in Shanghai. While Twitter has historically maintained a certain amount of due process around these kinds of requests, there’s no guarantee that this will hold under Musk. Situations like these could easily set precedent for other authoritarian heavyweights to exploit their business ties to Musk in order to get Twitter to hand over user data, censor journalists, or promote their political agendas.
WHAT WE’RE READING
- WIRED: New reporting from Stephen Levy shows how Meta’s Oversight Board has done more than just issue decisions on thorny questions about what kinds of material should and should not appear on Facebook and Instagram. The panel of legal and human rights experts has pushed for policy reforms and broader transparency around Meta’s decision-making. The goal, they say, has been “to make Meta own up to the monster it has created.”
- Global Voices: Hungarian tech expert and lawyer Veszna Wessenauer looks back at the “love-hate” relationship between Facebook and Victor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party, and explains how Facebook has become central to Fidesz’s strategy.
- S.T.O.P: “Wiretaps on Wheels,” a new piece of research by the New York-based Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, shows how new cars — and the vast amounts of data they collect about their drivers — are providing a hot new way for law enforcement to surveil people without getting a warrant first.