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By SecureWorld News Team
Sun | Feb 11, 2018 | 6:16 AM PST

The popularity of consumer Virtual Private Network (VPN) solutions continues to grow. Once primarily the preserve of businesses as a way for staff to access corporate data, VPN services are now widely used by individuals for a host of reasons. These include boosting online privacy, keeping safe while using Wi-Fi hotspots, and (sometimes controversially) unblocking entertainment content by “spoofing” a false location.

VPNs are legal almost everywhere, with some notable exceptions such as North Korea and Iraq. However, there are some other countries where the authorities are introducing specific legislation and in some ways restricting their use, such as China and Russia. One country that’s firmly in this category is the United Arab Emirates, and this has been the case for some time.

UAE controversy

Back in 2016, there was serious controversy around the use of VPN services in the UAE. Reports began to circulate threatening the risk of “imprisonment and up to Dh2 million in fines” for anyone using them. This led some websites to include the UAE on lists of countries where their use is completely off-limits.

This isn’t precisely the case. When the laws hit the headlines and caused panic there was a substantial increase in potential fines, however the specific offense, which already existed, relates to using VPNs to “commit a crime, or to try to prevent its discovery.”

This is rather ambiguous wording, but quite rightly enough to bother people in the UAE using VPNs to access TV broadcasts or their way around censorship restrictions. However, the law does still allow for those in the UAE to use VPNs for their many other legitimate and legal purposes. Indeed, the use of VPNs is widespread among plenty of global companies with a presence in the area.

Mysterious messages

The VPN controversy in the UAE again raised its head recently when people across the country started to receive SMS messages suggesting they were being fined for the use of VPNs. The messages mentioned a fine of AED5000 ($1,361), and requested that recipients head for their nearest police station to pay up. Unsurprisingly, people shared screenshots of these messages on social media, with many doubting their provenance.

The UAE’s Telecommunication Regulatory Authority quickly quashed any suspicion of the messages being genuine, tweeting that the story was “fabricated.” The body also warned about the potential for punishment for anyone publishing false statements online, presumably in an attempt to prevent the message continuing to “go viral.” Subsequent press reports clarified that VPNs were permitted “if used for legal purposes.”

However, some mysteries remain. Although local reports suggested the text messages could be part of a scam or hack, it seems unclear at this stage what anyone would have to gain by enticing people to head to their police station to pay a non-existent fine. This was not a ransomware attack, and its random method of dissemination didn’t have any of the hallmarks of a phishing attempt either. After all, there was no effort to seek any login details or personal information from any recipients.

Even so, it once again shone a bright light on the use of VPNs in the United Arab Emirates. While it seems that people using them for their myriad legitimate purposes in the country should be able to rest easy, anyone using them to tune into foreign TV or work around local censorship must be doing so with nerves of steel and firmly crossed fingers.

Contributed by Ben Taylor for