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Hobby Hackers, Part I

Hobby Hackers, Part I

As more news agencies and businesses in the region turn to the internet, Saudi Arabia is spawning a generation of hackers and pirate programmers, Part I.

February 25, 2009 1:07 by

Educational institutions haven’t escaped the attention of young Saudis either. Almost two years ago, one potential student who was declined admission to study computer science at Riyadh’s King Saud University got angry, went home, fired up his computer, and shut down the university’s online discussion forum. The prospective student said he was upset by an official at the admissions department who insulted his high school coursework and told him to come back when he had better grades. After hacking into the Web site, the university’s webmaster urged the admissions department to admit the tech-savvy student.

Changing the rules

While there seems to be a lack of statistics on the sheer extent of Internet crime in Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom’s authorities passed legislation to tackle cybercrime last year. The Act against cybercriminals includes punishments for individuals or groups who try to “gain unauthorized access to a Web site, changing its look or design, shutting it down, or sabotaging, modifying or stealing the address of that Web site.”

Riyadh says there are few Saudi hackers based in the country. Fahd al-Abboud, a member of the Shoura Council’s Tele-communications and IT Committee, told the press when the new law was an-nounced that there are “not that many [cybercriminals]. Cybercrime has not become a phenomenon in the Kingdom.”

The government’s legislation seems to be aimed at curbing religious extremism rather than countering hacking activities. The legislation’s penalties include a maximum 10-year jail term and can incur a fine of up to five million Saudi Riyals ($1.3 million) against anyone who builds or publishes a Web site for a terrorist group “to facilitate communicating their ideas or making explosives.”

The challenge many online users in the kingdom face is circumventing the government’s extensive Web filtering and firewall systems. The Saudi government blocks not only adult content, but also a range of relatively benign information about religion, health, education, humor and entertainment. According to some estimates, there are more than 400,000 Web sites blocked to Saudi Internet users.

First published in Trends magazine.

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