Cybercrime in the UAE: are you safe online?

With cybercrime rife and strict rules on what normal people can post online, staying connected in the UAE is riskier than ever.

Peter Iantorno December 1, 2015

Robbers, burglars, muggers; in years gone by these were the only type of criminals that the general public had to worry about stealing their hard-earned money. Yet, while we have seen some incredibly audacious heists in our time, none come close to the level of sophistication used by the new breed of criminals: hackers.

Unlike the comparatively primitive methods used by old-fashioned crooks to relieve you of your money or possessions, cybercriminals use technology to disrupt, steal and extort all without ever coming into direct contact with their unsuspecting targets.

And it’s not just rich bankers or famous people who are targeted – to the hackers everyone is fair game. In the past year alone, more than 2 million people in the UAE experienced some form of online crime, according to a recent study conducted by online security company Norton by Symantec. 

Mercato Mall Dubai.jpg The UAE's malls are a hotbed for smartphone hacking.

The study showed that UAE consumers spent close to a day-and-a-half (30 hours) dealing with the consequences of cybercrime, resulting in a loss just short of AED 5 billion – an average of AED 2,331 per person.

“We no longer need convincing of the risks – cybercrime has unfortunately become a fact of life in the UAE,” said Tamim Taufiq, Middle East Manager, Norton Business Unit in response to the findings.

“Our findings demonstrate that the reality of cybercrime still hasn’t led to widespread adoption of simple, yet secure protection measures. As the UAE becomes increasingly mobile-savvy, this should be reflected in the approach all generations make to safe-guarding their personal information and their loved ones.”

Questioning more than 17,000 consumers across the world, including 1,012 in the UAE, the survey revealed that despite the popular assumption that the older generation are less tech-savvy, it is actually Millennials (people aged between 18 and 34) who are at the greatest risk, with 42 per cent of people in that age group experiencing some form of online crime in the past 12 months. 

As well as the increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal operations being executed nowadays, carelessness with personal information is thought to be a major cause of the rise in online crime. For example, according to the study, 37 per cent of Millennials in the UAE are likely to share passwords with friends and relatives and 77 per cent do not have any security installed on their smartphone.

The report recommended a number of measures for improving online security, including reviewing bank and credit card statements for irregularities, being cautious when connected to the internet via open-network Wi-Fi and creating complicated passwords (unfortunately the likes of “password123” simply won’t cut it any more).

But even if you do follow all the advice to stay secure online, sometimes the hackers are just too smart and will be able to access your personal information regardless of the personal protection you put in place.

Just this week the online system of a Sharjah Bank was hacked by a cybercriminal, who claimed he would publish the confidential data of the bank’s clients unless he was paid a $3 million ransom in the untraceable online currency, Bitcoin.

Dubai free Wi-Fi on the beach.jpg Free Wi-Fi on the beach might seem attractive, but there are big risks with connecting to any open network.

According to the report in XPRESS, the hacker sent text messages and emails to several bank customers warning them that their accounts were “under his control” and that they should “pay directly or get the bank to do so” otherwise he would release their personal details online.

In response, the bank claimed that it would not give in to the blackmail, and that the Telecom Regulatory Authority’s Computer Emergency Response Team is investigating the incident.

This is far from a UAE-only problem. Also this week it has been reported that three banks in Greece have been attacked and held to a similar ransom, and there’s even been a widespread hacking of popular TV streaming service Netflix, with private account details being sold on the Dark Web for as little as $ 0.50 each.

Cybercrime Netflix hacked.jpg Fancy a cheap Netflix account? They are available for as little as $ 0.50 if you know where to look.

But back in the UAE, its not just shady cybercriminals and hackers that can cause you a problem online; if you use a computer, smartphone or any other internet-connected device, you’re putting yourself at risk of flouting the country’s strict cybercrime laws.

According to Article 21 of the UAE Cybercrime Law No. 5 set out in 2012, anyone who “uses a computer network and/or an electronic information system, or any information technology means for the invasion of privacy of another person” could face stern punishments, from a minimum fine of AED 150,000 to six months imprisonment.

And while it might sound like a normal, honest person would never fall foul of these rules, the law says that anyone “publishing news, electronic photos or photographs, scenes, comments, statements or information, even if true and correct” will be in violation. So, even if a post is 100 per cent true, if it compromises the privacy or defames the image of another person, you could find yourself in hot water.

With hacking on the rise and ever-smarter cybercriminals always looking for ways to steal a quick buck, clearly measures such as this law are needed. However, when a careless post on social media or a heat-of-the-moment comment on an online forum can land you with a massive fine or even jail time, the message on using technology in the UAE should be loud and clear: proceed with caution.