The 2022 FIFA World Cup is coming in a month. If you’re planning on heading to Qatar, you already knew it wouldn’t be like going to any other World Cup. There have been bans regarding extramarital sex and homosexuality, plus “sober zones” for drunk fans, and a lack of hotel rooms. Even new Fox analyst Chad Johnson said he was “reprimanded” for a public display of affection in Qatar. A further restriction comes from how the country is requiring visitors to install two apps on their mobile phones, apps that many consider to be spyware.
The two apps seem rather innocuous on the surface. Where there’s an issue is that they require permissions that many feel go beyond what a similar app would need from a user in order for the app to do its job.
NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation) head of security Øyvind Vasaasen did a deep dive into the two apps and discovered what Qatar wants access to is above and beyond the norm for similarly designed apps. Vasaasen even recommended people not bring their phones to Qatar, saying, “It’s not my job to give travel advice, but personally I would never bring my mobile phone on a visit to Qatar.”
The first, Ehteraz, is a COVID-19 tracking app that is similar to other COVID tracking apps. It’s a required download by any World Cup visitor over the age of 18. It’s used for contact tracing and helps warn people if they have been exposed to somebody else who is sick. And because of that, the app requires permission to track someone’s location.
What makes it different than other COVID tracking apps is that it was also discovered that the app wants the ability to “read, delete or change all content on the phone, as well as access to connect to WiFi and Bluetooth, override other apps and prevent the phone from switching off to sleep mode.” And that’s along with “the ability to make direct calls via your phone and the ability to disable your screen lock.”
The second, Hayya, is a general event app that helps people track their World Cup tickets and gives them access to Qatar’s free Metro system. Similar to Ehteraz, Hayya can prevent the phone from switching to sleep mode as well as capture someone’s exact location and view network connections. That’s in addition to asking for “access to share your personal information with almost no restrictions.”
Vasaasen said, “When you download these two apps, you accept the terms stated in the contract, and those terms are very generous. You essentially hand over all the information in your phone. You give the people who control the apps the ability to read and change things, and tweak it. They also get the opportunity to retrieve information from other apps if they have the capacity to do so, and we believe they do.”
NRK is awaiting the findings from two independent IT companies who are reviewing both apps. They sent their findings to FIFA, who issued a “no comment.”
It would be one thing if you could pick and choose what permissions the app has over you. But as the University of Oslo’s Naomi Lintvedt notes, it’s “all or nothing” in order to use the apps, and you need those apps to work if you want to go to the World Cup.
“You cannot consent to parts of the use, just everything,” Lintvedt said. “If I understand the apps correctly, there will also be limited options to change permissions there. This means that if you want to go to the WC, you have no choice. This is a mandatory app, with no options.”
Lintvedt concurred with Vasaasen and recommended that journalists, and even fans, not bring their work or personal mobile phones to Qatar. And given that you can’t get away without having a mobile phone these days, it comes down to having some sort of burner phone for the month, which can be rather expensive.
While the initial design of the two apps may have been done in good faith, Qatar doesn’t have trust from too many people that they will stop at what they publicly say. You just have to look at the various human rights abuses the nation is trying to hide and the means of how they got the World Cup in the first place to see why there’s a lack of trust.
It feels like the closer we get to the World Cup, the feeling is that most people just want to get this tournament over with as quickly and as painlessly as possible. But for those actually going, there are certainly going to be some concerns about these apps.
[NRK; illustration of the Lusail Stadium from the Qatar 2022 organization committee, via Getty Images]