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

Obama: I Will Do 'Everything I Can' to Close Guantanamo

US president says prison continues 'to inspire jihadists and extremists around the world' More

Sierra Leone Educates on Safe Ebola Burials

Also, country is improving at rapid response to isolated outbreaks, but health workers need to be even faster, officials say More

Christmas Gains Popularity in Vietnam

Increasingly wealthy Vietnamese embrace holiday due to its non-religious glamor, commercial appeal More

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.
Ugandan Doctors Aid Victims of Sudan's Civil Wari
X
Adam Bailes
December 22, 2014 3:45 PM
In Sudan's state of South Kordofan, the number of amputees as result of civil war is in the thousands, but few have access to sufficient medical help. Adam Bailes recently visited the area and says a small team of Ugandan doctors has been providing remote help, producing new prosthetic limbs for those in need.
Video

Video Ugandan Doctors Aid Victims of Sudan's Civil War

In Sudan's state of South Kordofan, the number of amputees as result of civil war is in the thousands, but few have access to sufficient medical help. Adam Bailes recently visited the area and says a small team of Ugandan doctors has been providing remote help, producing new prosthetic limbs for those in need.
Video

Video Jane Monheit Christmas Special

Chanteuse Jane Monheit sings the holiday classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and explains why it’s her favorite song of the season.
Video

Video Calm Amid Fear in Daily Life in S. Sudan’s Town of Bentiu

Six months ago, Bentiu was a ghost town. The capital of northern Unity State, near South Sudan’s important oil fields, had changed hands several times in fighting between government forces and rebels. Calm returned in November and since then, residents of Bentiu have been trying to regain some sense of normalcy. Bentiu’s market has reopened there are plans to start school again. But fears of new attacks hang heavy, as Benno Muchler reports from Bentiu.
Video

Video US Business Groups Press for Greater Access to Cuba

President Barack Obama's decision to do all he can to ease restrictions on U.S. trade, travel and financial activities with Cuba has drawn criticism from some conservatives and Republicans. People who bring tourists to the island and farmers who want to sell more food to Cuba, however, think they can do a lot more business with Cuba. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Three Cities Bid for Future Obama Presidential Library

President Barack Obama still has two years left in his term in office, but the effort to establish his post-presidential library is already underway. The bid for the Obama Presidential Library is down to four locations in three states -- New York, Hawaii, and Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, each of them played an important part in the president’s life before he reached the White House.
Video

Video Fears of More Political Gridlock in 2015

2014 proved to be a difficult year politically for President Barack Obama and a very good year for the U.S. Republican Party. Republican gains in the November midterm elections gave them control of the Senate and House of Representatives for the next two years -- setting the stage for more confrontation and gridlock in the final two years of the Obama presidency. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has a preview from Washington.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.

All About America

AppleAndroid