Information Bank: A New Intelligence Weapon for Spying on Yemenis
In mid-November, the number of local and international news websites that the Houthi group blocked reached 249, and the number is likely to increase, according to Ibrahim, an official at the Public Telecommunications Corporation in Sanaa.
He said that the corporation today possesses high-quality software that filters and monitors anti-Houthi websites and content to classify it later and then block or censor such websites.
According to the source, under security directives, the corporation has worked to stop and ban most programs designed to help open blocked websites and is constantly working to monitor websites and news platforms. It will possibly block more programs, especially electronic communication programs.
According to reports from the Access Now website, Yemen has had the largest number of Internet blocking operations in the Middle East, and the actual number of Internet blocking operations far exceeds the number that has been documented. The website said that telecommunications and Internet services and companies in Yemen have become political ownership.
The official pointed out that one of the plans that the group is working on is to create an information bank, which is a "top-secret" cloud system that stores, records, and tracks all users of Internet and communications services.
This system works to create a personal file that contains details of the sites that the user visited. The system saves search and viewing records and obtains program usage data, said the official.
The source added that this system will be linked to telecommunications companies to obtain records of calls, messages, and usage, forming an integrated file of all operations performed by the user.
The technology and telecommunications sector in Yemen is managed by the sole operator, Teleyemen Company, and the Public Telecommunications Corporation. These corporations are under the control and management of the Houthi group, and this allows them to completely control this sector and use it as a repressive weapon to control information channels and the privacy of subscribers.
Alaa, an employee in one of the private telecommunications companies, says that the Houthi group worked to establish a specialized department for security and intelligence in all telecommunications companies to obtain all information and recordings for anyone who falls within the group's suspicion. They began adopting this way after they imposed their presence in all telecommunications companies in Yemen.
He added, "These departments are the nucleus of a larger administration that obtains all information related to calls, messages, and Internet usage of any suspected person."
Alaa said, "Such information is available, and it can be obtained within the systems of telecommunications companies." He indicated that he is in contact with many employees of other telecommunications companies as part of his union work and that they confirmed that this happened in their companies.
He added, "These records were provided only in case of judicial matters and based on requests from the Public Prosecution for investigation. But now it is available to the group, and the Houthi figures can obtain it without legal permission."
The pivots of establishing an information bank
According to sources in Teleyemen and the Public Telecommunications Corporation, the work procedures for establishing the information bank began in July 2022. The group previously worked on tightening its control on all telecommunications and Internet companies. Former employees in specific departments were replaced to facilitate operations within these companies without opposition. Moreover, the group purchased stakes and shares in telecommunications companies through individuals to boost its influence on the decision-making process.
The sources said that the creation of information bank procedures included establishing a cloud company affiliated with the group to facilitate storage and upload operations to it. According to the sources, the mechanism works roughly on three basic pivots, the first of which is recording all visits to websites and applications and keeping the citizen's usage records, followed by the tracking of these processes and linking them to special records of searching, messaging, downloading and uploading files. The third pivot focuses on content detection of programs and websites that do not have binary encryption features or that have lower-layer protection.
According to an engineer at Teleyemen, the last pivot is the most difficult as it requires specific systems and tracking applications that are not yet offered for sale except according to special agreements.
However, the group may have access to such systems given the group's interest in the telecommunications sector as an information and economic source.
According to information from some programmers of telecommunications and Internet companies, this technology may access all data and information, even encrypted ones, including messages from social media programs. The sources spoke about the difficulty of these procedures at present but say it is possible in the near future. A source added that the target group, in the beginning, will be activists and opponents of the group, and the group will gradually expand this practice.
Regarding whether the Internet service provider can access personal data, records, and electronic calls, the US Federal Trade Commission says in its report that Internet service providers are able, using certain technologies, to access a large amount of data and that users are unable to restrict most of this data. The report said that such practices are particularly troubling when users' personal data is combined with Internet usage records, through which the service provider or a third party can categorize users and use this information.
Radwan, an engineer at a telecommunications company, confirms that the Houthi group has entered into an agreement with telecommunications companies and internet providers, and this may result in full access to information and records and may be used for intelligence purposes. This will lead to more crackdowns on the Houthi opponents and enable the group to strangle media freedom and freedom of expression further.