New Saudi Cybersecurity Agency May Prompt Broader Privacy Law

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By Matthew Kalman

Saudi Arabia’s recent creation of a cybersecurity agency to protect critical infrastructure may push the kingdom to adopt a privacy and data security framework law, privacy and cybersecurity professionals told Bloomberg Law.

A month after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Oct. 24 announcement of the creation of Neom, a $500-billion plan for a futuristic internet-connected, artificial intelligence-assisted metropolis on the Red Sea, 70 Saudi student hackers are scheduled to gather in Riyadh Nov. 21 to launch an attack on a computer version of the smart city. The students will attempt to shut down the imitation city’s electricity, water, banking, transportation, and other critical infrastructure.

Those kinds of critical infrastructure cyberthreats to national security will be high on the agenda of the National Authority for Cybersecurity, which was created by King Salman in an Oct. 31 royal decree. The authority will focus on enhancing protection of networks, information technology systems, operating systems, hardware, software, and data, NAC Chairman Mas’ed bin Mohammed Al-Aiban said in an Oct. 31 statement.

Saudi sectoral privacy laws and regulations for communications, health information, and financial data are in place, but the country has no overarching, comprehensive privacy law. The new agency may now be in position to help support comprehensive data protection legislation, Samer Omar, CEO of cybersecurity specialists VirtuPort, located in Dubai and Ashburn, Va., told Bloomberg Law.

But putting a comprehensive privacy law in place may be difficult.

There have been several unsuccessful attempts to enact a framework privacy law in Saudi Arabia, Jonathan Reardon, head of the Al Tamimi & Co. law firm’s office in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, told Bloomberg BNA, and it is unclear whether the new cybersecurity authority will be effective in moving that effort.

Growing Cyberattack Threat

Creating the agency is a “vital step” to protect Saudi assets, Kurt Amend, CEO of Raytheon Saudi Arabia, told Bloomberg Law. “It is an acknowledgment of the growing threat that sovereign states increasingly face of cyber attacks against networks and critical infrastructure alike,” he said.

Aramco, the state-owned oil giant, was hit by a massive data breach in 2012. Since then, cyberattacks against government ministries, health-care companies, and aviation networks have been made public.

Given Saudi Arabia’s history of cyberattacks on critical assets, it makes sense that it would start taking cybersecurity seriously, Paul Sherry, director of Middle East sales for Skybox Security Inc. in San Jose, Ca., told Bloomberg Law. “Saudis are certainly familiar with the cyberthreat to businesses and critical infrastructure alike.”

Privacy Framework

The new cybersecurity authority may focus primarily on the public sector, which dominates much of the kingdom’s economy.

Private sector laws and rules more often focus on the control of what kinds of information may be posted online than on personal data privacy, Azhar Unwala, a Washington-based political risk analyst for Global Risk Insights, told Bloomberg Law.

The absence of a general privacy regime also means that traditional Sharia law may control where no law is in place for a particular sector, Muhammad Anam Saleem, a corporate commercial practice senior associate at Mohammed Aldhabaan & Partners—Eversheds Sutherland LLP in Riyadh, told Bloomberg Law.

To contact the reporter on this story: Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Donald Aplin at daplin@bna.com

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