News / Middle East

    Egypt Wants Greater Monitoring of Bloggers, Social Media

    Doug BernardMohamed Elshinnawi
    Mahmoud Salem knows about the costs of blogging in Egypt.
     
    Three years ago, amid the uprising against then-President Hosni Mubarak, Salem’s “Rantings of a Sandmonkey” blog was a popular site for pro-democracy advocates. It was so popular that his name and the expression “Arab Spring” became almost synonymous for many Egyptians.
     
    That popularity made him a target, Salem said.
     
    Salem told ABC News in 2011 that he was beaten by a mob egged on by policemen and taken to police headquarters, only to be dropped off in a tunnel and left to make it home.
     
    The conclusion, Salem told ABC News, was clear: say something online the government doesn’t like, and you’ll be punished.
     
    Since then, Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi have come and gone – pushed from office by protests and a military coup.
     
    But as public dissent has grown in Egypt, online activists say they have experienced no easing of government pressures.
     
    And they fear things are about to get worse under Egypt’s newly-inaugurated President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, a former military man who helped oust Morsi.
     
    Expanded monitoring
     
    For years it’s been known that the Egyptian government has been monitoring the private electronic communications of certain citizens, notably activists like Salem.
     
    Newly leaked documents show the Egyptian government now wants to greatly expand its monitoring of Egyptians’ use of social media, hauling in massive amounts of data on just about everyone online in Egypt.
     
    Internet surveillance by governments around the world is nothing new, but as technologies have increased, so, too, has the capacity for ever-larger and more sophisticated data collection.
     
    Even before its civil war, the Syrian government was using powerful systems from Blue Coat Technologies to monitor its citizens’ movements and communications online.
     
    Ethiopia and Vietnam are widely believed to have acquired FinFisher systems to spy on dissidents. And in the United States, the activities of the National Security Agency  have now become public with the leaks from Edward Snowden.
     
    The proposed scale of active Egyptian monitoring marks a dramatic escalation in a nation experiencing increased crackdown on dissent.
     
    First published in the El-Watan newspaper on June 1, the leaked documents detail a request by the Egyptian government – called a “tender” – to international tech firms for software that can swallow up data from Egyptian users of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, and possibly from mobile apps Instagram, WhatsApp and Viber as well.
     
    “The objective of bidding is to get a system that can detect security threats posed by social media networks,” reads the tender document from the Ministry of the Interior.  “Social media is more and more used to spread destructive ideas that our society is influenced by these days.”
     
    Widespread impact
     
    According to the leaked documents, the government wants a system that would gobble up nearly all online traffic in Egypt and then vacuum the data for 26 key words or phrases that the government considers “destructive ideas on youth.”
     
    Those include “spreading vicious rumors, bad-mouthing, calls to reject societal norms, inciting violence and rebellion, mobilizing demonstrations, spreading explosive know-how and calling for illegal strikes, stirring up trouble and unrest and using bad words.”
     
    The Egyptian Ministry of Interior has confirmed the legitimacy of the leaked documents.
     
    Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said in a statement that the new project is needed to fight terrorism, not to spy on its citizens.
     
    But critics aren’t convinced. 
     
    “Since the third of July we’ve seen a crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly,” said Mohammed Elmessiry, an Egypt-based researcher for Amnesty International. “And this system will give the Ministry of Interior free reign to monitor those called for protests or using illegal words in connection with religion and be arrested and face drummed-up charges.”
     
    Among the requests spelled out in the tender is a technical requirement that would allow the Interior Ministry to target specific individuals sharing controversial links as well as their geographic location and their online friends.
     
    “Giving this system to an unaccountable Ministry of Interior, it will be abused by the Ministry to crack down on freedom of expression,” Elmessiry said. “No system like this one being proposed was used (in the 2011 revolution) and that’s why people stood up and claimed their freedom.”

    Activists like Elmessiry now worry that should this system be implemented, dissent in the future may be stifled before it begins.
     
    Little international attention
     
    The leaked tender documents have drawn substantial attention by the Egyptian media, but so far appear to have escaped broader international scrutiny.
     
    There also has yet to be any criticism of the proposal from members of the Egyptian parliament or judiciary, despite claims that the surveillance system would violate the “Right to Privacy” clause of Egypt’s new constitution. 
     
    Egyptian blogger and political commentator Nervan Mahmoud said there will be a limiting effect on political speech – online and off.
     
    “Social media played an important and crucial role in the ousting of Mubarak,” Mahmoud said. “The Egyptian government denies that the new system will target personal accounts and claim it will only target groups that incite violence or national security. However, there are simply no guarantees that they will stick to their promises, and that is the big worry.”
     
    Political activist Amr Gharbeia, among the first bloggers online in 2004, has helped shape Egypt’s telecommunications policies.
     
    Gharbeia called the newly proposed surveillance system “Orwellian” and worries that the contact tracing provisions could turn people against each other.
     
    “Over the years, myself and many people around me have been targeted because of content they put online,” he told VOA.
     
    Although Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim says the surveillance is designed to combat terrorism, Gharbeia and many other Egyptian Internet activists have their doubts.
     
    “The response has begun already,” he said. “This past week saw widespread meme and related hashtags making fun of the fact that #WeAreBeingWatched.”
     
    “Such a system will only will only empower the state even more, especially in such crazy times,” he said.

    Doug Bernard

    dbjohnson+voanews.com

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

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