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The Political Power of Tech in the Middle East

As I sit down to write about this topic, I can't help but think about the common dating process that usually takes place in the Middle East using the mobile handset. In many of the more conservative Arab nations, it is common for Arab boys and girls that have congregated at malls to use the Bluetooth feature in their mobile phones to randomly connect with the opposite sex and initiate a communication. This could then lead to clandestine meetings offline. Bluetooth is a peer-to-peer technology and does not have to flow through the communications network of the telecom operator, which, in all likelihood, is monitored closely.

In the Middle East it is all about using technology to work around state censorship. If GYM (Google-Yahoo-Microsoft) provided the initial work out to the youth to get their internet muscles ready, it was FYT (Facebook-YouTube-Twitter) that got the youth galvanised to start the Arab Spring and overthrow dictators who had been in power for years.

But it is also technology that gives the power to the government to monitor and control. While the first few countries got through the Arab Spring using technology, it hasn’t been repeated much later. Governments have gotten wiser and extremely sophisticated technologies around GPS, cell locations, monitoring content including social media as well as call monitoring, which have all contributed to identifying “trouble makers” well in advance and taking preventive actions.

In the Middle East, the propensity of the governments to invest in the best of technologies ahead of its time will mean that the political leadership will have an edge in this race. We now hear of Machine-to-Machine communications and Big Data Analytics, two very useful tools in the hands of the government. M2M in my view will provide an entirely different source of information for the sake of analysis. Suddenly your car, your household appliances, data feed from video cameras etc. become available for spotting patterns and coming to conclusions.

Big Data is a tool that will enable this analysis to spot trends and take corrective steps. I believe that governments over time will start mandating companies to take security measures by specifying advanced technologies to invest in so that the process of monitoring is spread through the country rather than remaining the sole responsibility of the state.

I expect that governments will seek periodic access to internal IT systems of companies based on an analysis of data traffic at the aggregate district, city or country level. Such interventions, which are the cyber equivalent of the physical search and seizure operations, will become prevalent, especially in the Middle East countries where state control can be so important for the survival of the rulers.

 

By Krishna Gopal, Independent Consultant in the Middle East and Africa. Follow him on Twitter@krishg40 or read his regular blog here.

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