Today’s world runs on high technology and in the next few years of time we will reach to a place of entirely a digitalized world; with the growing technology, the need to safeguard and protect the technology from being misused for any malicious activities against any individual, major organizations and Governmental bodies. Hence, strong legislation has been implemented in many countries to prevent cybercrimes.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), acknowledges the importance of having a strong and stringent law in order to effectively combat cybercrimes and to ensure that technology is not misused for any illegal activities. In the year 2012, UAE Government issued a Federal Law number 5 of 2012 on the cybercrime (the Cybercrimes Law) and from time-to-time, the law on the cybercrime in UAE has been amended to protect the country from any kind of malicious activity or usage of technology in contrary to the local and moral laws of the country. UAE’s recent ban on the usage of apps like skype and WhatsApp audio and video calls and the prohibition of accessing some useful websites like Spotify or Netflix (US), has led the frustrated residents to use the Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to access the apps and websites that are blocked by the UAE government. The recent study by Atlas VPN[i], has shown that over 3.8 million UAE residents have downloaded VPN in the first half of 2020 making UAE be the highest downloader of VPN in the world.
It is necessary to know what is a VPN, its uses and the legalities of using VPN in UAE, lest you find yourself being held for an offence of cybercrime under the UAE cybercrime laws. VPN is a private encrypted network which provides security over the internet for various purposes by concealing one’s internet protocol (IP) address and replacing it with a different IP address; for instance, one may live in UAE, but with the use of VPN, it may seem like that person lives in New York, India or any other city. Internet Protocol is used by the apps to ascertain the location of the computers, smartphones or tablets. VPN tends to hold several uses like gaining access to blocked or geographically restricted websites or contents, to access a secured Wi-Fi connection in public places like airports, metro stations, malls, cafes and restaurants, hotels and so on, without being hacked or be a victim to any malware activity, for people working remotely to log into their company’s website to gain access to the internal resources, to ensure a more secured network by the governmental organizations with regards to defence, finance, municipality, legal matters, economic development or for trade purposes to protect any sensitive data. However, despite the beneficial uses of VPN, it also has non-negligible implications like hacking of one’s account, concealing malicious activities, online frauds, invading one’s private bank accounts, illegal transfers or exchange of stolen data, for terrorist communications and many such grave offences jeopardizing the safety of the country and the people.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA) has enforced strict restrictions, regulating on the kind of content which can be accessed or be seen on the internet across the country, which is also known as internet censorship. UAE’s law on the cybercrimes prohibits the use of various websites which are deemed to be illegal in the country and also it includes severe punishments to prevent the myriad of cybercrimes. Article 9 of the Federal Law number 5 of 2012 (the Cybercrime Law) provides with the provision regulating the use of VPN. As per Article 9 of the Cybercrime Law, any person who supersedes the original internet protocol by any other delusive address or an address which belongs to others for the purpose of committing a crime or in order to conceal its discovery shall be liable to be imprisoned and bear a fine. However, this provision regulating the use of VPN has been later amended and replaced by Article 1 of Federal Law number 12 of 2016 on the Cybercrimes as, any person who is found using a fake computer network protocol address by using a false address or a third-party address with an intention to commit a crime or prevent its discovery shall be subject to temporary imprisonment and a hefty fine of UAE Dirhams five hundred thousand (AED 500,000) to UAE Dirhams two million (AED 2,000,00). However, the TRA has clarified that VPN can be used by companies, institutions and banks to gain access to internal resources are not unlawful, provided such access is not done for any illegal purposes. The UAE Government restricts the access to pornographic, dating, gambling and any content which is culturally or religiously offensive in nature or contrary to the UAE laws. As per the UAE Government, the following are deemed to be illegal use of VPN:
- Any content provoking online fraud, deception, theft, etc.
- Any content which is impersonating in nature for fraudulent purposes;
- Any content which permits access to others’ bank statements, accounts, date, credit or any other electronic card numbers or any electronic payments, and any confidential information;
- Any content which infringes one’s right to privacy, like any content or website which provides the devices for phone tapping, theft or publication of any private information; and
- Any content which has the information from the public or private organizations.
In UAE, some of the legal ways to use VPN services by individuals to use the blocked apps or geographically restricted content/websites is through the telecommunication services such as Du and Etisalat VPN packages, which permits the users to use mobile data or Wi-Fi to make video and audio calls internationally or access to the websites as permitted by the governing authority through the telecommunication services, any other usage of VPN which is contrary to terms and conditions set by the Cybercrime law and TRA shall be deemed to illegal use of the VPN. However, the core of imposing such strict restrictions on the usage of VPN by the UAE government is to prevent access to sacrilegious content.