FIFA World Cup Fans Should Use Burner Phones in Qatar, France Warns

With the World Cup kicking off, you might be busy packing your bags and double-checking your plane tickets for your trip to Qatar. Something you probably didn’t think about, though, was getting a burner phone. 

France’s data protection authority CNIL has warned football fans to take some extra precautions when they travel to the peninsular Arab country. While citizens in Qatar enjoy some internet freedom, the web is closely monitored and people self-censor to avoid jeopardizing their job and residency. 

Any foreigners visiting the country at this time are required to download two mobile applications —  Hayya, the official World Cup app and Etheraz, the country’s Covid-tracking app. Cybersecurity experts and data protection authorities have expressed concern about these apps, with many labeling them spyware.

Creating an app for the World Cup isn’t a bad thing, and on the surface, these apps even appear helpful. This is a natural extension of how technological innovations change the World Cup. While that’s a good thing on many levels, in this case, it might be to the fans’ detriment.

Forced Digital Supervision at the World Cup

The choice to make Qatar the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup has been met with plenty of criticism from the start. These criticisms range from concerns about human rights abuses of migrant workers, to bribery allegations connected to the FIFA officials who voted for Qatar, and concerns about media freedom in the country. 

These controversies have become so much of a problem that FIFA’s former president, Sepp Blatter, said making Qatar a World Cup host was a mistake. Despite everything, at least a million fans are expected to descend on the tiny Arab nation and all of them will have to download the two mandatory visitor apps.

Unfortunately, most people might not be aware of just how invasive these apps are, which is why EU authorities have started sending out warnings. Qatar’s Covid-tracking app, which has been mandatory since 2020, has already been criticized for its malware-like behavior. 

Screenshots of the Qatar Covid tracking app's interface
This tracking app is mandatory for everyone in Qatar, including citizens and visitors.

Øyvind Vasaasen, a security researcher for Norwegian news outlet NRK investigated the app and found some shocking features. Besides tracking your location, the Covid app can also:

          • Get full access to everything on your phone.
          • Read, delete, and change content on your phone.
          • Override other apps on your phone.
          • Make calls from the phone.
          • Disable your screen lock and prevent the phone from going into sleep mode.

None of these features make sense for a Covid tracking app. According to Vasaasen, the app essentially gives the government in Qatar full control over your phone.

Vasaasen says the World Cup app isn’t as invasive, but still has some concerning permission requests. For example, the Hayya app shares your personal information with almost no restrictions, tracks your exact location, views your phone’s network connections, and disables your lock screen.

Screenshots of the World Cup Hayya app's interface
While the Hayya app seems useful for World Cup visitors on the surface, it might be hiding sinister features.

“It’s not my job to give travel advice, but personally I would never bring my mobile phone on a visit to Qatar,”

Øyvind Vasaasen, NRK’s Head of Security.

While you wouldn’t want this level of power in the hands of any government entity, it’s especially concerning in the hands of Qatari authorities. On top of that, the extremely sensitive files and data collected by these apps can also prove to be a treasure trove for cybercriminals. 

It’s unclear what steps these apps take to protect your data and how secure they are. Qatar doesn’t have stringent data protection laws like the EU. That’s why some EU countries, including France, Germany, and Norway have been warning their citizens to be more careful when they travel for this year’s World Cup.

Get a Cheap Burner Phone and Leave the Sexting at Home

Since it’s an Arab country, Qatar has strict restrictions around sexual expression, clothing, drinking in public, and religion. You’re not allowed to drink outside of designated spaces (which doesn’t include the FIFA stadiums) and you aren’t allowed to openly practice any religion besides Islam. 

Qatar has also been in the news for its treatment of LGBTQ+ people, and homosexual activity is illegal in the country. While in Qatar, you’re not allowed to criticize its officials or the Islamic faith either, and may be arrested if found doing so in person or online.

Because of these laws, many are concerned about how foreigners will be treated when the Qatari government snoops through their phones. Anyone traveling from a country where they’re used to more freedoms might get in trouble with Qatari officials due to the content or messages they have on their phones.

Because of these reasons, France’s CNIL has said the best way to protect yourself may be to get a burner phone and to be careful with what you do with it. So long as you don’t take any compromising photos or videos, and don’t share any illegal opinions via messages or social media while in Qatar, you should be fine.

Hide Your Selfies and Protect Your Messages

If you don’t have the option of using a burner phone for the duration of your stay in the country, you can take a few extra precautions to avoid prosecution. First of all, it’s unclear who enforces the use of these apps. It’s possible you could get away with simply not downloading them at all. That’s a big risk, though, and could get you in trouble. 

You’ll still have to take some precautions either way, because free Wi-Fi is available in most areas in Qatar but it’s also monitored and controlled by the government. That means Qatari officials can still monitor and control your web activity via your Wi-Fi connection, even if you didn’t install the mandatory apps. 

Use a trusted VPN with the strongest encryption to protect your connection against snoopers and get access to an unfiltered internet, even on unsecured public Wi-Fi in Qatar. Note that a VPN won’t be able to stop any tracking or data collection from the apps you’ve installed.

If you don’t want to risk not installing the two mandatory apps, here’s what to do instead:

          • Only install Qatar’s mandatory apps when you land, and delete them again as soon as you leave.
          • Only accept the strictly necessary permissions from these apps.
          • Restrict app permissions for these apps and the other apps already installed on your phone via your device settings, especially background permissions.
          • Use an encrypted vault app to hide your most sensitive photos, videos, and texts. Make sure it’s a trustworthy, paid app, not a free one that may be malware in disguise.
          • Install CyberGhost VPN to secure your connection on any network and prevent third parties from snooping on your traffic.
          • Don’t take any photos or videos while in Qatar that could get you into trouble.
          • Avoid sending messages or posting opinions online that might anger the authorities while in Qatar.

Another, somewhat extreme option is to turn off your device connection when you’re not using it and only turn it on when necessary. You could also turn off your phone altogether and leave it in the hotel’s safe only to take it out when you need to use it, but that’s also very inconvenient. 

Unfortunately, watching the 2022 FIFA World Cup has now become a primary test for how much people are willing to sacrifice their privacy for convenience. Whatever option you end up choosing, stay vigilant about how you spend your time online in Qatar and take at least some extra precautions while you’re visiting the smallest nation to ever host the FIFA World Cup.

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