WASHINGTON — Cyberespionage may be the new normal, but you wouldn’t think that an American graduate student would be a target for state-level spyware and surveillance. Apparently, though, I am.
On May 19, I awoke to an email from an unfamiliar sender, “Wahedk87,” with the subject line “Planned visit to Qatar.” The email warned me that “the U.A.E. authorities have informed their counterparts in Qatar regarding your planned visit” and accused me of conducting a “dirty mission” to “gather some confidential information.”
In college at New York University, in 2013, I had spent a semester of study abroad in the United Arab Emirates; I am now a master’s candidate at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and at the time of Wahedk87’s email I was a week away from traveling to Qatar. My “dirty mission” was my thesis research, and the “confidential information” I sought was about the labor conditions of migrant workers in the capital, Doha.
Working with a cybersecurity expert, I learned that my personal email had been hacked twice in April. In advance of the hack, the attacker sent me bait emails including a fake BBC News alert about migrant labor abuses in Qatar. Once the hacker had access, he synced my personal email to an external account. This granted access to every message I had sent and received since my account’s inception four years ago.
When I landed in Qatar in June, Wahedk87’s threat became clear. I was denied entry and detained at the airport in Doha. Qatari immigration officers informed me that my name appeared on a “blacklist” maintained by member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council because I had “made trouble” in the U.A.E. Later, Emirati officials told the State Department that they had placed me on the blacklist for unspecified “security-related reasons.”
From this, I suspect that it was the U.A.E., an ally of the American government, that hacked my email and shared its intelligence about my research plans with the Qatari authorities. In 2013, while studying at New York University Abu Dhabi, I condemned the treatment of migrant workers who were building my university’s new campus on Saadiyat Island, an estimated $1 billion enterprise. In 2014, a New York Times investigation documented the deplorable treatment of those workers, including the unlawful deportation of hundreds for striking while working on the N.Y.U. project.
I was eventually allowed into Qatar on a tourist visa, but I remained under surveillance, at times followed by officers I was told were from state security. In August, the Qatari government rejected my application for a student visa to study at Georgetown Qatar this fall.
Georgetown’s response to my ban was troubling, stating that “access to study and residence visas varies across individuals and over time.” The administration stressed that they take academic freedom very seriously, even as the university is expanding “to work in increasingly difficult places.”
N.Y.U., my alma mater, had made similar statements after the Emirati authorities denied access to one of its professors, Andrew Ross, in March 2015. He had also been traveling to the U.A.E. to conduct research into migrant worker abuses. N.Y.U. said that it supported the “free movement of people and ideas,” but that “it is the government that controls visa and immigration policy, and not the university.” The administration also offered the somewhat self-serving argument that N.Y.U.’s “presence in these nations and societies brings more freedom of ideas, not less.”
These responses seem uninformed or disingenuous. Both Qatar and the U.A.E. use sophisticated internet attack tools to execute what Human Rights Watch recently called a “systematic and well-funded assault on free speech to subvert the potentially transformative impact of social media and internet technology.” Generally, it is the citizens of these gulf countries, not foreign visitors, who face the worst of such repression.
An Emirati professor named Nasser bin Ghaith was detained with no access to his family or a lawyer for nine months, and claimed in a court hearing to have been tortured, for criticizing the government on Twitter. He has been charged under the 2012 Cybercrimes Law that prescribes up to 15 years in prison for people who post content that could “damage the reputation” of the U.A.E. leadership.
In May, Citizen Lab, a watchdog group based at the University of Toronto, uncovered a five-year campaign of spyware attacks against Emirati journalists, activists and dissidents, including the human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, who has frequently been targeted by hackers since calling for reform in 2011. In August, Mr. Mansoor became known as the “million-dollar dissident” after a costly but failed effort by the U.A.E. government to break into his iPhone.
It’s clear that N.Y.U. and Georgetown do not want to bite the hand that feeds them, but it may not end there.
According to reports, a Maryland-based company called CyberPoint International began providing advice on cybersecurity to the United Arab Emirates government in 2012. CyberPoint’s contract reportedly ended last year, but the company’s former chief strategy officer, Paul Kurtz, who worked in the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, is still chairman of the advisory board of N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi’s cybersecurity center. The center also partners with “government agencies” in an effort to “improve cybersecurity in the U.A.E.” and “more generally in the G.C.C. region.”
There is no evidence that CyberPoint was involved in spying, but it is worrying that N.Y.U. is involved in this field with the Emirates, since the government has used its cyber capabilities against its own citizens, and possibly foreign researchers, too.
The gulf states are big investors. Announcing the creation of N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi in 2007, the university’s former president, John Sexton, explained, “The costs of planning, designing and building the campus and all expenses related to the operation of N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi will be assumed by the government of Abu Dhabi.”
The failure of Georgetown and N.Y.U. to call out the suppression of critical speech suggests the complicity that gulf money buys. The transactional relationships that underpin these American universities’ campuses in U.A.E. and Qatar subvert the very academic freedom they’re supposed to promote.