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European Companies Sold Spy Tech to a Secret Egyptian Intelligence Unit Amid Brutal Repression

Little is known about the so-called Technical Research Department, a shadowy Egyptian intelligence unit reporting directly to the president. But we do know European companies did business with it.

by Namir Shabibi
Feb 26 2016, 3:15pm

A protest about a journalist jailed under sweeping new counter-terror legislation in Cairo in August 2015. Photo by Khaled Elfiqi/EPA

When pro-democracy Egyptian protestors succeeded in ending the authoritarian rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, they would soon reap an unexpected double-coup. The following month reports claimed that the much-feared Egypt's State Security Investigations Service (SSI) had been shuttered. A powerful symbol of state repression was no longer. Or so it seemed.

Amid the flux of revolution, one Egyptian intelligence body not only survived intact but massively increased its surveillance capacity, throughout a period of worsening repression.

According to a new report by Privacy International, European companies supplied the euphemistically-named Technical Research Department (TRD) with intrusive surveillance equipment, enabling them to target human rights activists and journalists.

The investigation, entitled "The President's Men? Inside the Technical Research Department, the secret player in Egypt's intelligence infrastructure," is the first to shed light on the growth of the TRD intelligence unit, its pivotal role in Egyptian intelligence apparatus and its links to European companies.

The TRD's growth is consistent with claims by human rights defenders that the Egyptian security service was in reality untouched by the revolution. Instead, it quietly went about strengthening itself under the cover of political turmoil.

Related: Fear, Censorship, and Pledges of Loyalty: Egyptian Press Freedom Is at Its Lowest Ebb

The report implicates two European companies in the sale of surveillance technology to TRD. At the time of mass protests in Egypt between 2010-11, it claims Nokia Siemens Networks provided the TRD mass surveillance capabilities including an interception management system and a monitoring center.

Moreover, according to Privacy International, leaked emails from Italian surveillance equipment seller Hacking Team dated from last year show that it expected to earn a million euros from the sale of intrusive surveillance technologies to the unit. The technology would allow TRD complete access to the computers and smart phones of targeted individuals.

Based on conversations with industry sources, experts, and leaked documents, the report describes how former President Hosni Mubarak used the unit to keep political opponents in check through surveillance of their communications. When it was created remains unknown but one expert suggests it may date from former President Anwar Sadat's reign, which lasted until 1981.

The lack of information about the unit, which even enjoys relative anonymity within Egypt's own intelligence network, owes much to its creator's intentions. One purpose is to spy on other government officials and potential opponents. When the General Intelligence Directorate (GIS), Egypt's agency tasked with non-military covert operations, refuses to conduct certain surveillance activities, the president can rely on TRD to do the job. No known legal text or decree regulates the TRD. One intelligence source familiar with the agency described the body as "the president's personal intelligence agency."

Related: Egyptian Forces Kill 12 After Mistaking Mexican Tourists for 'Terrorist Elements'

The Hacking Team's leaked emails that discuss potential business with the TRD say that the intelligence unit is accountable only to the president, who directly allocates its budget. Egypt's incumbent President President Abdel Fattah el Sisi will enjoy the same intrusive surveillance powers bequeathed by his ally and predecessor Mubarak.

The wide-ranging surveillance technologies provided by European companies to TRD have made it capable of spying on political opponents and activists at a time of increasing political repression by the Egyptian government. Exactly how the TRD's fits into the constellation of Egyptian intelligence agencies is unknown. But the unaccountability and mystery surrounding it suggest it is one of Egypt's darker secrets.

During the 2011 protests against President Mubarak, a television program broadcast phone conversations of well-known activists in order to shame them. Another Egyptian activist said transcripts of her emails and online chats with her partner were slipped under her door. The SSI summoned her for questioning shortly after.

In 2013, the interim Egyptian government led by then-President Mohammed Morsi resurrected several controversial police units that were part of the feared SSI, — to the dismay of human rights activists who had fought to end the abuses they perpetrated. At the time, one middle-ranking Cairo-based police officer told the Guardian "our pride is back." He added that the state security's notoriously abusive treatment of detainees was reasonable given that, in his view, the detainees were unlikely to be innocent.

Related: Egypt Sentences Former President Mohammed Morsi and More Than 100 Others to Death

Since former army chief Sisi ousted Morsi to take power in June 2014, the country has "remain[ed] in human rights crisis," in the words of Human Rights Watch (HRW), citing the forced disappearances and torture committed by intelligence and security services, deaths in custody, the effective banning of protest, and sweeping counter-terror legislation. Earlier this year, the Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence — which the government is now attempting to shut down — reported that nearly 500 people died at the hands of Egypt's security forces and over 600 people were tortured while in detention in 2015. The report cited 640 cases of individual torture and 36 cases of mass torture.

In July 2014, fearing complicity in ongoing abuses, the European Parliament called for a ban on exporting monitoring technology to Egypt. A month later, the Egyptian government was accused of killing at least 1,150 protesters, in an incident HRW called a "likely crime against humanity."

The sale of technologies by Trovicor, a Nokia Siemens Network (NSN) affiliate, to Bahrain — similar to that being sold by European companies to TRD — sparked international outrage. Bahraini government authorities are alleged to have used similar equipment to spy on and then torture political opponents as they interrogated them using transcripts of their text messages and phone conversations. Likewise, in Iran, NSN monitoring centers were used during the 2009 protests unrest to crack down on activists, Privacy International alleges.

Related: Egypt Marks Anniversary of 2011 Uprising With Deadly Clashes Between Protesters and Police

"Considering Egypt's human rights record, it is very concerning that a secret unit such as the TRD, which appears to have no form of oversight or clear legal mandate, has surveillance capabilities that enable it to monitor the phone and internet communications of anyone in Egypt," the report says.

Responding to the claims, Siemens told Privacy International that it was "unable to comment on the business that is related to Nokia Siemens Networks" since NSN had been consolidated by Nokia in 2013. Nokia said that the provision of "lawful interception" technology was "a prerequisite for telecommunications operators to obtain a license." As for monitoring centers, Nokia explained it had divested the business in 2009 and "do[es] not believe we had any such sales since then."

Meanwhile, Hacking Team did not deny the claim it had sold intrusive surveillance equipment. Instead, it said: "Sales are regulated by Italian authorities…Beyond complying with regulation, Hacking Team has always required customers to certify that they will use the technology legally and not for military purposes." It further justified its position by saying that Egypt was "an ally of the West…and even of Israel."

Related: Egypt Is Readying a Massive Surveillance Program for Social Media

Commenting, European Member of Parliament Marietje Schaake told VICE News the sales should be investigated to find out whether they were even legal, given the "very worrying" human rights situation in Egypt that had condemned by the EU and its Member States.

"These new revelations show the lack of accountability and oversight in the market of surveillance and other intrusive technologies," she said. "The case shows the urgent need for proper and updated EU rules making exports transparent and accountable. The European Commission has not a single credible excuse to delay the updates of export controls mechanisms any longer."

Eva Blum-Dumontet, Research Officer at Privacy International said: 'When its very existence has not been avowed it becomes impossible for civil society to demand answers to legitimate questions: what is the function of the TRD? What is its budget? Why does the president need the TRD? How many people are under surveillance by the TRD and why?

"The fact that a secret unit — unknown to the general public and apparently without any democratic oversight — can afford to spend millions of euros surveilling potentially every Egyptian citizen's communications is a grave human rights issue that the Egyptian government must address."

Follow Namir Shabibi on Twitter: @nshabibi

Related: Egypt Sentences Another 683 People to Death, Breaks Previous Record

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state security investigations service
technical research department