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.

    You May Like

    Escalation of Media Crackdown in Turkey Heightens Concerns

    Critics see 'a new dark age' as arrests of journalists, closures of media outlets by Erdogan government mount

    Russia Boasts of Troop Buildup on Flank, Draws Flak

    Russian military moves counter to efforts to de-escalate tensions, State Department says

    Video Iraqis Primed to March on Mosul, Foreign Minister Says

    Iraqi FM Ibrahim al-Jaafari tells VOA the campaign will meet optimistic expectations, even though US officials remain cautious

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Processi
    X
    Katherine Gypson
    July 27, 2016 6:21 PM
    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video A Life of Fighting Back: Hillary Clinton Shatters Glass Ceiling

    Hillary Clinton made history Thursday, overcoming personal and political setbacks to become the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party. If she wins in November, she will go from “first lady” to U.S. Senator from New York, to Secretary of State, to “Madam President.” Polls show Clinton is both beloved and despised. White House Correspondent Cindy Saine takes a look at the life of the woman both supporters and detractors agree is a fighter for the ages.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video First Time Delegate’s First Day Frustrations

    With thousands of people filling the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, VOA’s Kane Farabaugh narrowed in on one delegate as she made her first trip to a national party convention. It was a day that was anything but routine for this United States military veteran.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora