zawya, 03 Aug 16 00:00 UTC
Dubai: Accessing a Virtual Private Network (VPN) by an individual in the UAE is legal but it has to be used in a proper way, a TRA spokesperson and industry experts told Gulf News.
The use of VPNs has come into the spotlight this week following social media rumours claiming that online users could land in jail and pay hefty fines if they get caught using a false or third-party address.
The way VPN works is by logging through a US or UK server instead of the UAE server to easily access restricted sites. The premium apps on smartphones, tablets and computers now look at the IP (Internet Protocol) address to identify a computer or device on a network in a bid to know from where the user is browsing.
However, consumers have found a way to unblock the apps using proxy or VPNs which hide users’ identity and geo-location by replacing your real IP address with the new one, so it looks like the content is coming from another IP address located somewhere else. But users with an American or a European subscription can watch any of the streaming services in the UAE with a VPN.
There are many VPN services available for free downloads as well as for a monthly fee.
VPN started gaining traction when broadband came into the picture and people started streaming content.
“VPN creates a security layer on your communication, which means that a third party cannot extract information on what you do inside the VPN tunnel,” said Nicolai Solling, director of technology services at Help AG..
In the UAE, VPN services are used by some private individuals to access VoIP services, access some of the blocked websites and to watch geographically-restricted services like Hulu and Spotify.
Even though VoIP calls are officially banned in the UAE, the use of VoIP to make cheap voice calls over the internet is rampant in the Gulf and the VoIP cards are sold in many grocery stores in the UAE.
“In fact, encryption is happening natively in a lot of applications now. When you go to your e-banking, utility payments or social media sites, or use some smartphone communication apps, encryption is being carried out natively by using SSL in the browser or the application itself,” Solling said.
While the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) has always maintained that the illegal use of VPN is against its policies, the police have also cautioned that legal action can be taken under Law Number 9 against users of VPN for any illegal activities.
Referring to a recently issued amendment on Federal Law No (5) of 2012, the TRA said in a statement that the law is not new in its essence and that the only changes were related to tightening the penalty or punishment for any violation.
The UAE Cybercrime Law No 5 of 2012, issued by President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2012, includes stern punishments that could go up to a life sentence and/or a fine varying between Dh50,000 and Dh3 million depending on the severity and seriousness of the cybercrime.
To control unethical acts, the cybercrime law discourages the misuse of social media, promotion of child pornography or terrorism, committing financial fraud or engaging in cyber bullying.
What has been amended in the Cybercrime Law is the fine amount that offenders will face, in addition to the existing provision on imprisonment.
Kellie Blyth, a senior associate at Clyde & Co, suggested that private individuals, aside from corporate organisations, don’t run the risk of going to jail and paying a fine as long as they don’t use VPN to commit a crime. Any misuse of the technology, however, may still be punishable.
“The legal position regarding the use of VPNs in the UAE has not changed. It was and remains an offence to use VPN to commit a crime, or to try to prevent its discovery,” Blyth said. “Previously, the potential fines ranged from Dh150,000 to Dh500,000. Now, they have been increased to any amount from Dh500,000 to Dh2 million. This is in addition to a potential custodial sentence, which existed previously,” she said.
The TRA urged reading the actual violation mentioned in the law which says: “Using a false IP address or a third-party address by any other means for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery”, in order to understand the law correctly and where the punishment is exclusively linked to the mentioned fraudulent act and the intent to commit a crime or prevent its discovery.
Sukhdev Singh, vice-president at market research and analysis services provider AMRB, told Gulf News that Qatar is silent on VPNs for making VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) call.
Telecom operators provide VPN access to companies operating in the UAE.
Despite the hefty penalty and imprisonment issued by the TRA (Dh500,000 to Dh2 million), he said that it is almost impossible to track an individual due to the new VPN technologies as they keep on changing the servers.
“VPN usage will continue and it can be controlled only through proper education,” he said.
Hamad Obaid Al Mansouri, director-general of TRA, said that the UAE is proud of being one of the countries that encourages investment and openness to ICT-based economic activities.
The TRA further emphasised that any misuse of the licensed and organised services in the UAE will lead to legal accountability. It is worth mentioning that the laws are targeting those who misuse the services and not those activities that are consistent with UAE’s laws.
The TRA assures businesses and the public that it is fully committed to the safety and the smooth flow of economic activities for UAE-based companies and institutions, highlighting that there are no regulations which prevent the use of VPN technology by companies, institutions and banks to access their internal networks through internet. However, business users can be held accountable, like the use of any other technology, if it has been misused.