Ouch: You Could Be Fined $545,000 For Using A VPN In The UAE

If you travel internationally frequently you’ve likely used a VPN (virtual private network) as a way of accessing websites or apps that may be blocked in certain countries. For example, in China using a VPN is basically a must if you want to access any Google-based websites. Since I’m in China, I’m using a VPN as we speak.

VPN

While I imagine many governments don’t like people using VPNs, they rarely do anything about it. While we don’t know if it will be enforced in practice, the UAE has just enacted one of the strictest laws we’ve seen on VPN use. Per the International Business Times:

The President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has issued a series of new federal laws relating to IT crimes, including a regulation that forbids anyone in the UAE from making use of virtual private networks (VPN) to secure their web traffic from prying eyes.

The new law states that anyone who uses a VPN or proxy server can be imprisoned and fined between Dh500,000-Dh2,000,000 ($136,000-$545,000, £415,000, €495,000) if they are found to use VPNs fraudulently.

Previously, the law was restricted to prosecuting people who used VPNs as part of an internet crime, but UK-based VPN and privacy advocate Private Internet Access says that the law has now changed to enable police in the UAE to go after anyone who uses VPNs to access blocked services, which is considered to be fraudulent use of an IP address.

Interestingly it seems like this is being done as a way of helping to preserve the duopoly for VoIP services in the UAE, to prevent people from using VPNs to get cheaper international calling rates:

Etisalat and du are the only two companies in the world that have been granted licences by the UAE government to offer commercial VoIP services, which can be expensive, and rather than enable citizens and residents to have choice about what services they want to use, the government is assisting UAE’s telecom providers in upholding a monopoly on voice calls made in the country.

The UAE is no stranger to strict laws, a vast majority of which aren’t typically enforced. For example, in the UAE it’s illegal to swear by text message, and someone has even been jailed for “writing bad words on social media.”

But in a vast majority of instances these rules aren’t enforced. The one exception is when you tick off an Emirati, which is when “issues” seem to be taken a lot more seriously.

Abu-Dhabi-1

Bottom line

This is quite a strict new law regarding VPNs. I can’t imagine peoples’ VPN use will change unless they somehow crack down on it, which I doubt they’ll do. Still, this seems like an extreme law, and as far as I know, is the strictest law that any government has regarding VPN use.

Does this new law change whether or not you’d consider using a VPN in the UAE?

Comments

  1. Seems a bit over the top with the fine. I mean I always thought the UAE was trying to be forward thinking, I think if they started chasing up people using a VPN and fining them, it would probably get some negative press.

  2. Darn! I actually used a VPN for my work stuff when in Abu Dhabi. I have to use it for security, it goes right into Switzerland.

  3. How would they find the person who is visiting the country and connecting to a VPN? Can they track your device connected to a VPN and find your location and force you to release your device so they can confirm your use and fine you? This seems like those laws that will never leave the paper but many people won’t take the risk to see if they can get caught.

  4. To tag onto Eugene’s comment, I’m curious to know how this will this work for companies who use a VPN for all company devices and employees are traveling to the UAE.

  5. While I understand what they’re trying to do, what about those using VPNs as part of their corporate infrastructure? For most large corporations, all mobile IT assets MUST use a VPN to access the entreprise network and data, for obvious security reasons. I imagine this move will upset a lot of entreprises that have branches in the UAE or employees traveling in the region. I’m not sure they want that to happen.

  6. Like you said, like most of the UAEs super strict laws, they will likely only enforce this in rare cases. Many companies require their employees to use a VPN (and often simply have their entire office on a VPN) and they may use proprietary or non-UAE-blasses VOIP software. If the UAE actually fully enforced this law, it would probably cause some companies to look at moving their offices elsewhere.

  7. The whole point of a VPN is that it’s encrypted. There’s no way for them to know if you’re using a VPN or just creating a legitimate secure connection to a remote server for non-VPN uses. That means the likelihood of actually getting convicted and paying the fine is pretty small… the actual “punishment” would be the arrest and trial, which they could do regardless of if you’re using a VPN.

  8. For all those talking about using VPN for work the article says very clear “if they are found to use VPNs fraudulently or to access blocked content”. Thus, the use o VPN for company requirement should not fall under the restriction but again it is very subjective. Even in the US and without a VPN I have very strict rules from my company if using a company device regarding what I can access online. However, I can access Google services which is blocked in some countries. In that case I may be compliant with my company policy but violating the country’s rules. Again, very subjective.

  9. jyee you would be surprised how easy it is. I have been working for a three letter agency and finding who is on a VPN is much easier than you think. I can tell within a minute who on my node uses VPN and am sure that if they wanted to could find out as well in a split second.

  10. The Saudis could one-up UAE easily, they could just prescribe the death penalty. They seem to enjoy that kind of thing.

  11. When the near-slave labor force of foreigners rises up and takes the country from the Emiratis, no one should be surprised or disappointed. Foreign workers with no legal rights make up a large majority of the population and run everything that requires any kind of skill or expertise. And most of them a treated like dirt.

  12. Next thing they’ll be executing people in public for holding hands. More and more the Muslim world is distancing itself from the rest of human civilization.

  13. Wasn’t Skype banned as well? Or I think you couldn’t download it in the UAE without a VPN.

    No such laws here in Qatar yet but to be honest not that much is blocked so I don’t often have to use a VPN.

    Also if you ever buy a Middle East spec iPhone, Facetime will likely not work.

  14. Was just in Dubai on Tuesday. Skype works fine, but whatsapp talk feature was disabled. Whatsapp chat was fine.

  15. If I read it correctly, it only applies to using VPN to access blocked services. I use VPN all the time as that is the only way to access my work emails and our company servers from my laptop. I can’t imagine that being considered accessing blocked services.

  16. Everyone can relax. The article that IBT cites — http://www.emirates247.com/news/emirates/dh500-000-fine-if-you-use-fraud-ip-in-uae-2016-07-22-1.636441 — actually quotes the text of the new law:

    “Whoever uses a fraudulent computer network protocol address (IP address) by using a false address or a third-party address by any other means for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery, shall be punished…”

    Legitimate users can sleep safe and sound…

  17. As a UAE resident, may I please point out that the fines are if you are doing something illicit, and/or committing a crime, *and* found to be using a VPN to do so.

  18. The ruling states:

    “for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery”

    ..and that phrase is even in one of the linked articles.

  19. and you support these businesses,countries, airlines….while simultaneously denouncing them. So typical. Enjoy the champagne literally “peeled off a less unfortunate persons back.” Disgusting

  20. Your commentary is entirely misleading. VPNs are very much legal in the UAE and our company based here uses one that is provided by state-owned Etisalat. The new law only applies if the VPN is used with the intention of committing fraud to access sites that fall under any of the following 13 categories.

    1) Sites that promote content to bypass blocked content
    2) Sites that contain content for learning criminal skills
    3) Sites that deal with online dating or matchmaking or that contradict the ethics and morals of the UAE with the exception of chat services, social networks and discussion forums.
    4) Sites that contain content regarding illegal drugs
    5) Sites that contain pornography and nudity
    6) Sites that contain gambling content
    7) Sites that contain content regarding hacking and malicious codes with the exception of sites dealing with ethical hacking and information security.
    8) Sites that express hate to any religion
    9) Phishing content
    10) Sites that are known to download Spyware
    11) Sites that provide unlicensed VOIP services
    12) Sites that provide information related to encouraging terrorism
    13) Prohibited sites that are contrary to the public interest

  21. One interesting wrinkle to this is that when you use a foreign cellphone abroad on roaming, you are effectively VPNed back to your home country — for example if you use a US AT&T or T-Mobile cellphone in Dubai while roaming on the Etisalat or du networks, you can access banned content (like Skype-to-phone calls) and location-sensitive content (like Hulu) just as though you were in the US. I’m not sure if it technically counts as a VPN, but there’s also literally no way to avoid this outcome for roaming mobile phone users. I wonder if the UAE plans to prosecute everyone who turns their phone onto roaming upon arrival?

  22. “Does this new law change whether or not you’d consider” ever going there, even just to transit? :s

  23. The professional organization I belong to is having their international conference in Dubai in 2018. They were promoting it at the conference I just went to in NY. This woman (in a full on birka – i.e. black bedsheet) was trying to promote it. My response was – As a western woman I have no intention of ever going there. Her response to me – its a free country. I almost laughed in her face. I told her I have no interest in having to watch what I say or wear and will not be going.

  24. @Sean M. – thank you for the information. I was going to respond with the same comment, especially for all of us who require VPN for work. The information presented in this article is incomplete and presents an example of negligence in research.

  25. @Daniel It is like running an imaginary network cable between your computer and a host at the other end, through the internet, ie “virtual”. Everything that is transmitted via that connection is secure and nobody can watch what you are doing ie “private”. That’s your Virtual Private Network. There is nothing wrong with VPN’s are almost all business use them to allow you to access their corporate network.

    However, you can use them for slightly more greyer purposes. If you also direct your network traffic down that “private” connection, it is as though you are connecting to the internet from the “host” location, not your own. This can be used to avoid any sort of geo-blocking. If this host is an anonymous server, you are effectively connecting to the internet from a phantom location with a phantom IP address can’t be traced by the internet. With no-one knowing who you are or what you are looking at, you can potentially access illegal information.

    It is pretty easy for them to track the source and destination of VPN traffic. They also generally know the destination addresses of anonymous server services. I think if it is not one of these, ie. a corporate office, then they would not be concerned. Of course, it only catches the people making noob mistakes as the experts have hundreds of ways of hiding the rest of it.

    I have also noticed a number of hotels are either blocking vpn traffic or doing something that makes it difficult to connect. A number of times recently, I have had to use my phone to connect into the office smoothly.

  26. @Seam M
    Yes but those things are open to interpretation and not by the victim. I know people who thought they purchased perfectly legal service online only to find the sites being tagged as criminal. Buying allergy medications that ends up being considered illegal drug etc. Sites that promote method to bypass blocked content…there are plenty of sites that lets you circumvent youTube restrictions and/or ad blocking, seems to fit into your definition. To the layman, that would seem like a legit site.

    My advise to vpn users is to make sure you subscribed to a really good vpn. Especially, one that does not have IP leak.

  27. Just add it to the list of banned UAE things. They began confiscating E-Cigarettes from carry-ons last year. Apparently illegal in Dubai? But Emirates says nothing about that when checking in and departing from the US. I’ve heard that Dubai customs makes good money from selling confiscated e-cigs since they can’t be purchased there.

  28. @Joe – Like everything in the UAE, it isn’t a problem until it is a problem and then it is a big problem. But to be honest, this isn’t really that different than anywhere else in the world. Anyone who thinks that the UAE is an oppressive state really doesn’t understand the reality here. There is an unspoken social covenant that everyone lives within and the so-called oppressive laws are only used to target those who are perceived to have violated it (of course, the issue of perception is subjective and where the rare extreme cases that draw media attention fall through the cracks).

    The UAE is not like most countries in the world because 80% of its population is foreign and transient. That means that the Government is always representative of the minority rather than the majority, and there really isn’t any other way to do it. The Emiratis are very welcoming of outside influence, but also need to protect their own history, culture and lifestyle from being completely eroded even as it evolves with the other influences aroudn it. That sometimes leads to situations where a law enacted may seem strange to the outside world when taken at face value, but is very relevant to the citizens of the Government that enacts it. This law is one of those.

  29. Jyee, there is a way to detect if someone is using a VPN. There are services that maintain a database of all proxy servers, updated daily. If you access one of those proxies then that could be flagged. In fact your access to that IP could even be blocked.

    Whether those services would sell to an authoritarian government is another matter of course, but it is possible.

  30. @Martin: There are plenty of other ways to detect VPNs besides IPs. The traffic of a VPN tunnel is usually pretty distinctive if you’re looking for it. I was quite surprised the first time I fired up my T-Mobile phone on the office WiFi and saw it VPN’ing to T-Mobile’s servers.

  31. What if i use vpn for facetime and whatsapp calls, will i be fined too?
    Can they track the device if they use a vpn on it? Will they fine me?

  32. Luckily, this is no longer the case in Dubai as UAE government announced that they are removing ban on vpn’s. Astrill still works great in this area.

  33. It is good to know that Dubai has opened up. I am n Astrill user as well and it would be great to have it working once I get to visit UAE.

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