Will New Huge Saudi Arabia Investment Force Microsoft To Expose User Data to the Kingdom?
A controversial partnership between Saudi Arabia and Microsoft was announced at the annual tech conference, LEAP 2023, which has led activists to raise the alert that the recent $2.97 billion Microsoft investment could risk users’ personal data.
Set to be erected in the ambitious megacity of Neom, the Microsoft investment will be focused on the creation of a cloud storage facility that is comparable to the criticised cloud center proposal for Google.
Despite data security worries and Saudi Arabia’s human rights offences, tech giants have proven neither reason gives them pause and instead are happy to get in bed with the country as a partner regardless of the cost.
The criticised Microsoft data center will be within the $742 billion Neom mega-development by the notorious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and is described on the official website as the “power the future,” with a “secure data center” and boasting a “mixed-reality metaverse” complete with “advanced robotics.”
Concerned about the partnership and specifically sensitive political information stored via the cloud, computer technology expert at the University of Surrey in England Alan Woodward shared with Business Insider that Saudi authorities would have access to data that should be off-limits.
“The government can basically do what it wants,” Woodward said.
“And if you can imagine all the things that are put online it could be something quite edgy, it could be used against dissidents.”
If companies want to work in Saudi Arabia, then companies must play by their rules and keep data in the nation said Woodward.
“That’s for an obvious reason: So, they could potentially access it,” he said.
As for keeping sensitive information secure, Microsoft, the second-largest tech company worldwide, has yet to disclose how it will shield the privacy of data housed in Saudi Arabia.
According to an analyst with digital rights group Access Now Marwa Fatafta, whether Microsoft had done any due diligence on security before signing the deal is a concern.
Further, she was unsure how the company could assert privacy demands or sidestep potential human rights abuses within the framework of the partnership with a country with, in her words, a “dismal” human rights record.
The kingdom has been known to trample privacy laws jailing the public for speaking out against the government, like a Saudi woman Fatima al-Shawarbi who was sentenced to 30 years for criticizing the Neom project on Twitter earlier this month.
Perhaps responding to the handling of data in the kingdom, Saudi Arabia announced the implementation of its first data protection plan or the Personal Data Protection Law (PDPL).
It remains unclear, however, if the PDPL will protect the public from prosecution linked to free speech on social media.