Saudi surfing scheme causes controversy

Up to one million households in Saudi Arabia are to be given free internet access as part of a new business model that could revolutionise the Middle East advertising industry

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By  Administrator Published  January 1, 2007

Up to one million households in Saudi Arabia are to be given free internet access as part of a new business model that could revolutionise the Middle East advertising industry. However, security experts have expressed concern about its potential for compromise and misuse.

A new company called Media 20-20 will provide free ADSL access to households taking part in the government’s Home Computing Project, as long as they agree to allow advertising on their screens.

Using the same technology that is used to control corporate PCs centrally, to upgrade operating systems, for example, the company will replace the screensaver and wallpaper on each participating PC with varied advertisements.

Saudi firm Wamad is behind the venture, named Media 20- 20, which is headquartered in Dubai and uses Empirum software from Matrix42.

Moses Kuria, chief operating officer at Wamad, said: “Today using a WAN or a LAN you can control corporate PCs. By the same process we are trying to cover the mass market. It means that using our technology, when somebody hooks up to the internet we are able to control their computer in the same way as we control it through the corporate network. We are turning the computer into media.”

Every person who wishes to take advantage of free internet access will be required to complete a registration form. The demographic data on this will then help Media 20-20 offer targeted adverts to users. In addition, the firm will also be able to offer remote maintenance and support, on payment of a subscription fee.

Kuria confirmed to Windows that his company’s PC control would not be misused. However some of the region’s security experts have expressed serious concern about the scheme.

“How will Media 20-20 prevent security software from detecting its activities as spyware or greyware? There are far too many security programs and companies out there for it to maintain relationships with them all,” asked Trend Micro’s regional director, Justin Doo.

“More needs to be disclosed in terms of the license agreement,” added Symantec’s senior security consultant, Ivor Rankin. “Is the company simply a push content provider or will it be reporting back users’ surfing habits, which could have privacy implications? If the organisation is able to deliver the service in a transparent manner and can agree to a binding agreement with its customers – for instance, that it won’t use their PCs to monitor their internet usage – then potentially it’s a great idea,” Rankin states, “but potential security implications are huge.”

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