People in the United Arab Emirates might want to reconsider using a virtual private network service to mask their IP addresses when they get online.
New laws signed on July 22 make it so anyone caught using a VPN within the UAE could be fined anywhere between $136,000 and $545,000. That’s up to half a million dollars for using free and simple tools to access the internet.
The new law expands a previous rule that made it illegal to use a VPN while committing another crime. Now the very act of using a VPN to evade surveillance is a crime unto itself, according to the updated text introduced earlier this week:
Whoever uses a fraudulent computer network protocol address (IP address) by using a false address or a third-party address by any other means for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery, shall be punished by temporary imprisonment and a fine of no less than Dh500,000 and not exceeding Dh2,000,000, or either of these two penalties.
VPNs are often used in the UAE to bypass a ban on free VoIP services like WhatsApp or FaceTime. They also let people bypass restrictions that prohibit anyone in the UAE from streaming online porn, visiting gambling sites, or accessing other websites banned within the country. (And, of course, a variety of tools allow people to do similar things in other countries.)
This could have a particularly harmful effect on migrant workers in the UAE.
“Let’s be clear – this new law does kind of affect the traveling businessman that stops in Dubai,” writes VPN provider Private Internet Access on its news website. “However, the real victims of this new law will be the millions of migrant workers that have come to rely on using VPNs to access free VoIP.” Many of those workers can’t afford to use paid services.
Some websites are banned from the UAE for cultural reasons, but the VoIP ban was specifically designed to help the UAE telecom industry survive despite pressure from free services, reports IBT.
Yet the motivation doesn’t matter. The simple truth is that trying to be more secure online, or trying to bypass restrictions that prevent workers from communicating with their families, could now cost people an insane amount of money. The UAE has made it far more dangerous — from both a cybersecurity perspective and from a law enforcement perspective — to access the internet.