The use of virtual private networks (VPNs) in the UAE has raised concerns for the top cyber official of the country. Muhammad Al Kuwaiti, head of cybersecurity at UAE Government, expressed his worry about the misuse of VPNs in the country, highlighting that while the use of VPNs is not a problem, the misuse of them is a growing concern. However, his statement comes in light of the substantial increase in the use of VPNs, with residents of the UAE downloading VPN apps 1.83 million times in 2023, reaching a total of 6.1 million, as reported by the Global VPN Adoption Index by Atlas VPN.
The rise in VPN adoption in the UAE can be attributed to the strict regulations imposed on Internet content, including the censorship of designated websites and online services. Ezzeldin Hussein, regional director, sales engineering, Middle East, Turkey and Africa (META), SentinelOne, stated that VPNs are being used to bypass these restrictions and access content that may be blocked or unavailable in the country, such as VoIP services. Additionally, VPNs are utilized by business travelers to access corporate networks and overcome geo-restrictions on services and content.
Furthermore, the use of VPNs to access applications like WhatsApp and FaceTime has become increasingly popular. Nord Security noted the growing usage of VPNs in the UAE to make audio-video calls through apps such as WhatsApp, Skype, FaceTime, and dating apps. However, guidelines from the Telecommunications and Digital Government Regulatory Authority (TDRA) have made it clear that the use of VPNs for illegal purposes, including accessing prohibited communication sites, is strictly forbidden. Misuse of VPNs can result in imprisonment and hefty fines, as outlined in the decree law to combat false rumors and cybercrimes.
Amidst the growing use of VPNs, Gopan Sivasankaran, general manager at Secureworks for Middle East, Turkey, and Africa, warned of the cybersecurity risks associated with VPN usage. He emphasized that while VPNs protect local traffic on public WiFi networks, there is potential for third-party VPN services to monetize, monitor, or interfere with VPN traffic, posing serious risks to consumer privacy and security.
From a national cybersecurity perspective, the extensive use of VPNs poses challenges for law enforcement and intelligence agencies in monitoring cybercrime and national security threats. Hussein cautioned that the anonymity provided by VPNs can make it difficult to trace the origin of malicious activities and identify individuals involved in online illicit activities. Balancing the need to protect cybersecurity with respecting individual privacy rights and freedom presents policy and regulatory challenges for the government.
In conclusion, while VPNs serve as an essential tool for privacy and security, the misuse of VPNs in the UAE has become a cause for concern. With the increasing adoption of VPNs, it is crucial for the government to address the potential risks associated with their misuse and educate the public about responsible VPN usage. Finding a balance between cybersecurity measures and individual privacy rights will be essential in navigating the challenges posed by VPNs in the UAE.