-- This article was part of the postgraduate IS489 course "Data Governance: Privacy, Openness and Transparency" at the London School of Economics, the academic year 2013/2014. This assignment was awarded a distinction.
I publish it to give non-Arabic speakers insights on some aspects of surveillance in Egypt. In fact, most Egyptians should be aware of the extent of surveillance in our lives and how it is used to suppress the revolution.
The crackdown on activists’ privacy in Egypt has raised questions about the threat of surveillance of communications on dissent groups. If authorities are allowed to search through activists’ homes and electronic devices without search warrants, as what happened in November 2013 with prominent activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, then how intensive is the surveillance of activists’ communications happening behind the scenes, and how does this surveillance threaten them?
When the Egyptian authorities cut off mobile and Internet communications for 5 days in February 2011, they proved that they have full control over telecommunications. According to Vodafone CEO, “the request was legitimate under Egyptian law”. But this was not the first incident of manipulating telecommunication companies. According to Privacy International report produced in 2013, “Aiding Surveillance”; in 2008, the Egyptian authorities used calls and messages logs obtained from telecommunication companies to track down opposition activists behind the famous protests of “April 6” movement.
The surveillance imposed on activists’ communications in Egypt threatens their safety and violates their rights. Many incidents were reported for police kidnaps or arrests of those who ran dissent Facebook pages, accusing them of “incitement”. The most famous incident of arrest over cyber activism was the one made to Google’s executive, Wael Ghonim, directly after the start of January 2011 protests. Ghonim operated anonymously online and was based at the United Arab Emirates, and he suddenly disappeared when he returned to Egypt, then released from State Security detention after 12 days, exposing that he ran the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Saeed” that took part in organizing the protests. Questions were raised after Ghonim’s release regarding authorities’ ability to monitor cyber activities, done by opposition Facebook pages’ administrators, whether on Facebook or not, even if they reside outside the country.
Moreover, in March 2011, when Egypt’s State Security Headquarters were stormed by protesters, many documents that were leaked showed how closely communications were monitored by the state. In 2013, an investigative report produced by ONTV channel, creating a huge buzz around the country, showed offers made to State Security Investigation Department during the period from 2009 to 2011, from Gamma Group, which according to their website “supply communications monitoring solutions and train authorized government agencies”. Further leaked documents showed that the Gamma-produced “FinFisher” software was already tried for 5 months by State Security agents, who requested its purchase, for its ability to hack Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail e-mail accounts, and install monitoring files over targeted devices and have full control over them, in addition to monitoring Skype. Leaks also contained documents from October 2010 with details of authorities’ meeting with telecommunications companies to agree on how to monitor and prevent “revolutionary groups” from broadcasting messages via phones or Internet. Added to that, Narus Company, a subsidiary of the Boeing Company, is partnering with an Egyptian company “Giza Systems” as mentioned on their website, and there are claims in both the TV report and an article by Democracy Now, that they also sold surveillance technologies to Egyptian authorities. This reinforces the Privacy International report findings, which state that there is a considerable demand for “surveillance capabilities” among non-democratic governments, stating Egypt among other countries. However, the report stresses that “political instability and corruption make new technologies vulnerable to misuse or misappropriation by repressive State actors or authoritarian elements”.
Surveillance systems, which aid governments to fight terrorism and enhance national security, could certainly be used as a tool by non-democratic governments to crack down on its opponents. Surveillance systems vendors will not care about who they are selling the software to, as long as they do business, which is what was precisely quoted in the Privacy International report, on behalf of the director of a company involved in implementing the Egyptian National ID system, funded by the Danish Aid Agency, under Mubarak’s rule.
Laws and regulations should impose restrictions on governments regarding surveillance of citizens. There should be transparent investigations of privacy preaches by authorities, especially non-democratic regimes. Egyptian officials responsible for communications cut off should be held accountable, along with any authority that violates citizens’ right to privacy and security. In addition, laws should oblige surveillance systems vendors to reveal who their clients are, as well as oblige governments to be transparent about companies who sell them surveillance systems and their capabilities, and clearly define situations for their usage. Neither regimes, nor companies should have that vast control over communications of citizens, which ultimately threatens the safety of rights defenders and activists.
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