Saudi Arabia confirmed on Monday the death of one of the patients infected by the novel coronavirus, which some scientific journals now refer to as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, or MERS. The Ministry of Health published a short statement on its website saying the patient had chronic heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and renal failure. This raises to 16 the number of deaths by the virus. MOH also said that one of the healthcare professionals who contracted the virus is improving and has left the hospital. No new cases has been recorded since the last one that was announced on Friday.
Saudi authorities are investigating attacks that targeted several government websites this week, the state news agency reported on Friday. The Saudi Press Agency quoted an official source at the Ministry of Interior’s National Center of Electronic Security who said “many government websites, including MOI portal, have been under synchronous coordinated attacks over the past few days.”
The official confirmed that the Interior Ministry site was inaccessible for nearly an hour on Wednesday due to a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. Initial assessment shows that the attack came from hundred of IPs from different countries, the official said.
“Specialized parties at the National Center of Electronic Security have begun investigating this and taken the necessary measures to deal with these electronic sabotaging attacks and decrease their effect on the electronic services offered by the government to citizens and expatriates,” he said.
A new hacker group called Anonymous Saudi on Twitter have claimed responsibility for the attacks on government sites. The group, which started tweeting five days ago, first targeted the website of telecom Mobily after a US software engineer known as Moxie Marlinspike said on his blog that the company approached him to help them spy on costumers. The company has denied the allegation.
“We are Saudi Anonymous, We are #Anonymous We are the new generation of saudis,we are not stupid, we don't fear anyone or anything #expectus,” the hacker group tweeted on Wednesday.
Few days after attacking Mobily website, the group announced plans to attack government websites. The list of their targets included the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government departments. Several government websites were inaccessible for different periods of time, and the group repeatedly apologized to those who were inconvenienced by the attacks as many citizens depend on these website to access government services.
State-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco was the victim of a major attack last year that was described as “among the most destructive acts of computer sabotage on a company to date.” The virus attack is said to have erased data on three-quarters of Aramco’s corporate PCs.
The local al-Hayat daily attributed to an Aramco source saying the attack originated in Romania. US intelligence officials later told the New York Times that Iran was the real perpetrator behind the attack, “although they offered no specific evidence to support that claim,” the newspaper said.
President of the Saudi Football Federation (SAFF) denied media reports suggesting that the federation will allow women to attend matches in stadiums, saying this decision was not his to make.
“A decision like this is a sovereign decision. Neither me nor SAFF can make it,” Ahmed Eid told al-Riyadh newspaper. “Only the political leadership in this country can make that decision.”
Eid added that there are studies being conducted to explore the possibility of building boxes at some stadiums that can be rented by businesses and families so women can attend football games. Eid said these boxes could be built in the new King Abdullah Sports City stadium when it opens in 2014, and also at Prince Abdullah al-Faisal stadium that is being renovated, both in the coastal city of Jeddah on the Red Sea.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that applies a strict interpretation of Islam with many restrictions on women. But the country sent two women to the Olympic Games for the first time last year in London after pressure from human rights organizations. Wojdan Shahrkhani competed in judo at and Sarah Attar in track and field. Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, praised Saudi Arabia’s late decision to send women to the games. “This is a major boost for gender equality,” he said.
The Saudi government recently announced that it will allow physical education at private girls’ schools under supervision from the Ministry of Education. Some private schools for girls already offer sports classes, but the decision is expected to regulate an existing practice and open the door to other schools to do the same.
Human Rights Watch urged the government to remove hurdles on women sports. “Sports for Saudi girls in schools will have a lasting impact on their empowerment, education and professional opportunities,” said Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives for HRT, in a statement. “Doing away with the ban on sports will allow a generation of girls to compete and to work within the kingdom to pull down hurdles.”
Football is the most popular sport in the country, and SAFF is understandably cautious about the issue of allowing women into stadium. Ahmed Eid is the first elected president of SAFF and also the first non-royal to take this office. A former goalkeeper for Jeddah-based al-Ahli club, Eid is considered a reformer and a supporter of women sports.
Writing in Arab News earlier this year, columnist Sabria S. Jawhar said Eid as “probably the single most important male ally that Saudi female athletes have to get a women’s football team up and running.”
Photo courtesy of Waleed Alzuhair via Flickr
Four new cases of the novel coronavirus have been confirmed in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said. The Ministry said in a statement published on its website Monday night that one of the cases has improved and left the hospital; the other three are still receiving treatment.
28 cases of the coronavirus infection have been reported in Saudi Arabia. 15 people have died from the virus, thought to be similar to the one that caused SARS. The outbreak appears to be clustered in the eastern part of the country, especially the oasis of al-Ahsa near the Gulf coast.
Experts from the World Health Organization visited the region earlier this week and said there are still many unanswered questions about the disease. “I would like to remind everyone that this is a new infection,” said WHO Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda in a statement, “and there are also many gaps in our knowledge that will inevitably take time to fill in.”
Other cases of the coronavirus have been reported in the UAE, France, Britain and Germany.
Saudi mobile operator Mobily approached a US software engineer to help them organize a program to intercept messages sent via apps like WhatApp, Twitter and Viber. Moxie Marlinspike wrote Monday on his blog that Mobily told him they already have a “WhatsApp interception prototype working” and that they were surprised how easy it was to make.
Saudi Arabia said in March that it could block several messaging apps because they do not meet the country’s regulatory requirements and laws. The Communication and Information Technology Commission (CITC), the local regulator of telecoms, said in a statement it has asked licensed mobile operators in to work with developers of these apps to ensure that they meet the regulatory requirements.
This step by CITC raised concerns about government surveillance of communication on these apps. Local media reported at the time that CITC has asked the telecom companies to do what is required to monitor apps like Skype, Viper and WhatsApp, and that if communication through such apps cannot be monitored due to encryption than the telecoms will have to block access to them.
When Marlinspike told Mobily that he was not interested in the job for privacy reasons, a manager at the Saudi telecom company told him that the program to monitor users data on messaging apps was not about “freedom and respecting privacy” but rather about combating terrorism. The manager even went further to suggest that, by not taking the job, Marlinspike will be “indirectly helping” the terrorists “who curb the freedom with their brutal activities.”
According to Wikipedia, Moxie Marlinspike is the pseudonym of a computer security researcher based in San Francisco. He was the co-founder of Whisper Systems, a mobile security and privacy company that was acquired by Twitter in 2011. Marlinspike said he hopes that by publishing the story about Mobily approaching him to monitor users we can have a conversation about what can be done to stop such practices.
“Really, it’s no shock that Saudi Arabia is working on this,” he wrote. “but it is interesting to get fairly direct evidence that it’s happening.”
Through CITC, the Saudi government has earlier this year forced mobile operators to add a user’s National ID number while topping up mobile phone credit. The government decision to link mobile prepaid cards to National IDs was justified as a security measure to prevent criminal uses of mobile phones. Linking mobile numbers to IDs means it is now harder to obtain numbers for temporary use, aka “burners,” which makes surveillance easier for authorities.
In March, English-language daily Arab News pulled a story about plans by CITC to link Twitter accounts of Saudi citizens to their national IDs. The newspaper has not explained why they pulled the front page story which said the plan was inspired by CITC’s successful implementation of the government decision to add the user’s ID numbers for topping up mobile credit.
Social networks and messaging apps are extremely popular in Saudi Arabia. It is estimated that there are 4 million active Saudi users and Twitter and as much as 12 million users of WhatsApp. In a country with many restrictions on free speech, these apps provided new platforms for citizens to communicate and exchange messages away from government censorship.
Even though there was no update from CITC since they released their statement last month regarding surveillance on messaging apps, the fact that Mobily has been working to design such tools and hire engineers to work on them suggest that the telecoms might have chosen to work quietly with the government to monitor these apps, despite protests by the their customers and local human rights groups.
Al-Hayat daily reported that two Saudi human rights organizations warned that the government plan to monitor messaging apps could infringe on international accords that the government has signed. A spokesman for the official Human Rights Commission (HRC) told the newspaper they stand by citizens’ rights to protect their information privacy. “Denying citizens access to these tools under any justifications is something HRC does not agree with,” the spokesman said.
UPDATE: Mobily has denied asking Moxie for help. “We never communicate with hackers,” the company said. “Moreover, it is not our job to spy on customers.”