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Egypt Is Readying a Massive Surveillance Program for Social Media

The news emerged after polls closed in a presidential election in which ex-armed forces chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won a landslide victory.

by John Beck
Jun 5 2014, 12:18pm

Photo by Jason Howie

The Egyptian government’s plan to follow the NSA’s lead and make a surveillance system to monitor social media networks is being condemned by rights groups and mocked by Twitter users.

The scheme was revealed when Egyptian newspaper Al-Watan published a leaked Interior Ministry document asking seven unnamed technology firms to submit proposals for a system that would systematically monitor Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter traffic for a vague array of offences, including expressing anti-government sentiment, profanity, fomenting unrest, and posting whatever the government considers to be immoral content. The system would potentially also monitor content on mobile apps like WhatsApp, Viber, and Instagram.

The news emerged just days after polls closed in a presidential election in which former armed forces chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won a landslide victory. Sisi led a military coup last year that deposed Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president. Since then, the military-backed government has clamped down hard on any form of dissent and instituted a controversial protest law curbing the right of citizens to demonstrate.

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Egyptian police already monitor social media and have arrested or threatened to arrest users for a variety of offences. The new system would be significantly more advanced, however, like a mini version of the NSA’s mass surveillance program Prism or “Squeaky Dolphin,” a program developed by Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters that monitors social media sites in real time.

An unnamed Egyptian security official told Reuters that the government’s typical surveillance of social media “is no longer sufficient in light of the huge rise in usage.”

Amnesty International said on Wednesday that such a system would “deal a devastating blow to the rights to privacy and freedom of expression” in Egypt and contravene the country’s new constitution, which was passed in January. Article 57 states: “The right to privacy may not be violated, shall be protected and may not be infringed upon. Postal, telegraphic and electronic correspondences, telephone calls, and other means of communication are inviolable, and their confidentiality is guaranteed.”

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“Plans by the Egyptian authorities to indiscriminately monitor social media a few months after the adoption of a new constitution guaranteeing the right to privacy shows the little regard they have for human rights or the rule of law,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa program, said in a statement.

Egyptian social media users lambasted the plan, and an Arabic hashtag meaning “we’re being watched” is currently trending on Twitter.

After the revelation, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim attempted to reassure Egypt’s internet users.

“It does not make sense, after two great revolutions… for the ministry to restrict freedom,” Ibrahim remarked to local media, claiming that the system would actually protect freedom of expression rather than violate it.

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He justified the move by saying that social media was affecting the government’s ability to combat terrorism by enabling the spread of knowledge about how to gather materials to assemble and detonate bombs.

It’s unclear how many terrorists tweet about their attacks beforehand.

Egypt has a long track record of spying on its populace. The country’s security forces peeped prolifically when longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak was in power. They developed technology allowing them to monitor the computers of activists and journalists, using the information to crackdown on dissent.

However, this variety of technology is not limited to government intelligence services. Similar systems are available commercially, according to Privacy International, an organization that filed a legal challenge last year against surveillance systems in Britain for operating “outside of the rule of law.” It has detailed a number of tools that it says have similar capabilities. These include AQWIREX — which its developer WireX says is “intended for enterprises, intelligence agencies, law enforcement organizations and content service providers seeking to monitor communications” —the platform Horizon Insight from NICE Systems, and an interception product called GENESI provided by a company called IPS.

Facebook and Twitter played a key role in organizing the mass demonstrations which toppled Mubarak in 2011. By blocking both protests and the most common methods of coordinating them, Sisi’s government is evidently hoping to safeguard his rule in a country whose last two presidents were overthrown.

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck

Photo via Flickr