Friday Newsletter: The Qatari Phone App that Does Location Surveillance on Every Visitor, Including You
Plus I Answer Your Mailbag Questions
DOHA, Qatar — I arrived in Qatar, the authoritarian country that’s hosting World Cup 2022, on February 21 and stayed for six days. The main reason for my trip was an independent journalism project that you’ll read soon enough if you subscribe to GrantWahl.com. But let’s just say there was a reason I didn’t publicize my Qatar visit on social media and didn’t say anything publicly about it until I had left the country.
The fact is that journalists can get detained in Qatar—including two reporters for the Norwegian TV World Cup rights holder in November—and I wasn’t hoping for a repeat of that during my time there.
For today’s column, though, I wanted to write about something that frankly freaked me out while I was in Qatar, something that everyone who visits the country in any capacity for the World Cup will almost certainly have to deal with. It’s called Ehteraz (“precaution” in Arabic), and it’s a phone app that every person who enters Qatar has to use as long as they’re in the country.
The way the Qatari government explains it, Ehteraz is a Covid-19 app that’s designed for public health. But as anyone who’s seen the app can tell you, Ehteraz is also a tool that the Qatari state can use to monitor your location at any time. And that’s more than a little scary.
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How does it work? Ahead of my flight to Doha, I had to apply online for clearance to enter the country. That included showing proof of vaccination, evidence of a negative PCR test within 72 hours of arrival and a reservation for a two-night quarantine stay at a state-approved hotel (where I had meals delivered to me and couldn’t leave my room). We’ll leave aside for the moment that a two-day hotel quarantine doesn’t serve any purpose whatsoever.
On the morning after my second night in quarantine, someone knocked on my door, gave me a Covid rapid test and told me I’d be free to go in 15 minutes if it came up negative. Which it did. But I still couldn’t enter any public buildings in Qatar until my Ehteraz app was working and I could show a green QR code. (A green QR means you’re negative, a yellow one means you’re in quarantine, a red one means you’re positive and a grey one means you’re a suspected positive.)
But even though I downloaded the Ehteraz app, it wouldn’t work when I tried to register. I had a car take me out to the airport and visited the “Ehteraz Support Desk.” The Qatari working there tried but failed to get the app working, so he stamped a form and said that could temporarily get me into buildings until my app started working, which he assured me would happen in a matter of a few hours.
But the app didn’t start working in a few hours, and when I tried to use the stamped form to get into a restaurant, they denied me entry. So I drove back out to the airport—I had a rental car by now—and went back to the Ehteraz Support Desk.
There, a truly unhelpful Qatari finally glanced up from the video game he was playing after I had been waiting for a bit.
“You need a Qatar number,” he said.
“No, I don’t,” I replied. “They say international numbers work fine.”
He shook his head and pointed to the Qatari cell phone provider next door. I bought a Qatari SIM card. With the help of the guy working at the cell phone desk, we got the Ehteraz app to work. But it showed a yellow QR code for me, not a green one. That wouldn’t work.
I went back to the guy at the Ehteraz help desk. He shrugged. “Maybe you have Covid,” he said.
“No, I don’t have Covid,” I told him. “As the app says, I tested negative this morning.”
“I can’t help you.”
“But you’re the Ehteraz help desk.”
“I help people if they can’t download the app.” He went back to playing his video game.
A few hours later, my Ehteraz QR code finally turned green. But that didn’t change the worst part of the app. You literally have to choose to let it track your location at all times. When I switched it to track me only when I was using the app, I got this response:
When an authoritarian government that detains journalists requires every visitor, including World Cup fans, to be location-tracked at all times by the government, that’s a problem. When you’re a journalist promising to protect the identities of people you’re interviewing, you have to go the extra mile to make sure you can protect them—which is no small task when your location is being tracked.
I’m all for the authorities taking legit measures to control Covid-19. But you don’t need to go this far to do it, and I guarantee you that soccer fans from the United States—who are interested in buying a lot of tickets for this World Cup—won’t be in favor of having their every move monitored by the Qatari government.
OPENING THE MAILBAG
Do you have any further insight on Carli Lloyd's comment that she "hated" playing for the USWNT due to poor locker room culture?
Carli Lloyd is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, no doubt about that, which I feel I should say first here. But I don’t think she provided enough specifics on what exactly about the USWNT culture she had issues with, or why the U.S. would be so dominant in winning its second straight World Cup in 2019 if it had such a toxic culture. What we do know from previous interviews is that Lloyd wasn’t happy about her playing time in 2019, and it’s hard not to think that was the major problem from her perspective. There’s a lot more reporting to be done on what happened inside the USWNT after World Cup 2015 when Lloyd and Hope Solo pushed to have the players drop John Langel as the director of their union and replaced him with Rich Nichols, the choice of Solo and Lloyd. Nichols took an extremely hard-line stance against U.S. Soccer until he was dropped by the USWNT players in a subsequent vote. Ever since that happened, Lloyd and Solo have been vocal about their differences with the other USWNT players.
How do you think Jesse Marsch will fare at Leeds United? Which American manager might be the next to go manage in Europe?
It’s certainly a challenge for Marsch to come in with just 12 league games left and one thing to do: Keep Leeds up in the Premier League. I think he can do it. But while Marsch’s system is a pressing system like that of Marcelo Bielsa, it’s a zonal pressing system, not a man-marking one. Can Marsch make the changes he needs to make in a very short time and get the results he needs? Can he simplify the changes but make them effective and stop Leeds leaking goals like it has lately? All I know is I plan to watch every Leeds game from here on out, and it’ll be a tremendous test for Marsch and the team—but also a huge opportunity.
In terms of the next American coach to manage in Europe, I’d say the most likely candidates are Jim Curtin and Steve Cherundolo.
Obviously it’s too late for this one. But I’d love to see comments or hear a whole pod or pod segment with Chris regarding opinions on the article in The Athletic by Sam Stejskal and Paul Tenorio. It’s a summary of conversations with MLS CSOs, and well worth a read by anybody interested in our domestic league.
First off, terrific work by Sam and Paul. Some initial thoughts from my end:
• I’m stunned that Bob Bradley didn’t get a single vote as the top head coach in MLS.
• When 19 unnamed execs said they thought at least 15 to 25% of MLS teams cheated the roster rules, it reminded me of when I covered college basketball and every coach would say off the record that a bunch of other coaches violated recruiting rules. It’s easy to say, and a lot easier to say it when you’re unnamed.
• I was surprised by how far Atlanta United was out in front of every other team on the question of which ownership group does the most to elevate the sporting side of their club.
• The unanimity with which MLS club execs hate GAM, TAM, etc., reminds me just how much the time has come for MLS league execs to make some major changes.
When is Chris Wittyngham going to interview you?
Soon, soon! I’m fired up to see what his questions are.
Do you think Abramovich selling Chelsea will ultimately hurt the club? Also, where do you stand on Abramovich's legacy there and his impact on club football? Do you think the next owner should try to emulate his approach (fire the coach every two years but also have a great front office and always put talent first) or go in a different direction?
It all depends on the next owner. Abramovich has been willing to stomach a massive money-losing operation for a long time, and I doubt the next owner will be willing to do that. That’s not a death sentence, though. Liverpool’s owners, FSG, have been targeted and smart about how they’ve gone about spending, and LFC is still in the hunt to win everything. Whoever comes in as the new owner would be best off emulating what FSG has done with Liverpool, I would argue.
What’s the best meal you ate in Barcelona?
Was there this week and always go to 9 Reinas, the Argentine steakhouse which shares a name with my favorite Argentine movie (which you should see!). It’s also a chance to consume Argentine beef, which you can’t get in the United States.
I'm seeing (in my social-media bubble) some hope that after Ukraine is resolved, people will start paying attention to other international violence. One example is Saudi Arabia's war with Yemen. But Saudi Arabia is prominent in soccer, and has been for years. Do you think there's any chance FIFA, UEFA or AFC will put pressure on Saudi Arabia, or any other nation that is internationally belligerent?
It’s a fair question. But honestly I don’t see that happening with Saudi Arabia. FIFA, whose president, Gianni Infantino, is very close with the Saudi leadership, is much more likely to ask for Saudi money to stage a big FIFA tournament than it is to slap any sanctions on the country. I’m afraid I don’t see that changing.
Have a good weekend, everyone.