Washington, D.C. – The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) is deeply troubled by recent reports that the Egyptian government plans to more expansively monitor social media and news websites for supposed criminal acts and terrorist threats. TIMEP recognizes that Egypt faces security threats that require careful monitoring, but is concerned about the potential impact that such indiscriminate mass surveillance could have on already-curtailed free expression rights.
Earlier this month, the Egyptian government reportedly issued a request for proposals to companies seeking bids for technology that can be used to identify criminal speech and potential security threats on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as on news sites. Among other things, this technology would be used to track the incitement of protests and strikes, as well as “degrading and acerbic ridicule” and “insult.” Such forms of speech and expression often serve as the basis for prosecution by the government of Egypt against dissidents and religious minorities.
Attempts to target individuals who use such language could pose serious threats to the rights to peaceful assembly and free speech, press, and religious belief. Those rights are protected under both Egypt’s constitution and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party. Despite such legal obligations, Egyptians’ free expression rights are often heavily restricted by the government, raising serious concerns about how indiscriminate monitoring could further affect Egyptians’ ability to freely exercise their fundamental freedoms.
TIMEP calls upon the government of Egypt either to terminate its plan to increase its mass surveillance of online discourse or otherwise take adequate measures to ensure that the rights of Egyptians to free expression are not curtailed as a result of such monitoring. Additionally, companies that submit bids for this contract should perform thorough due diligence reviews to assess whether the provision of such technology could violate the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
UPDATE (September 19, 2014): Security company See Egypt has reportedly won the government contract to monitor social media websites in Egypt. According to See Egypt’s CEO, Ali Miniesy, his company provides surveillance technologies to Egypt and trains officials on their use, including how to sort through information collected from email accounts and social media platforms. Miniesy stated that this technology could be used to “penetrate WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, or other programs if needed.”
An unnamed government official said on Monday that the government is looking for “any conversation, any interaction, we might find worrying or would want to keep a closer eye on,” including individuals taking part in “debauchery” or “homosexual acts,” as well as those who commit “blasphemy” and call for protests. The use of surveillance technologies to monitor and arrest targeted individuals and groups is already underway, according to some reports. If true, these accounts highlight the government’s worsening repression of free speech and expression rights and underscore the physical dangers posed to potential targets of such surveillance.
Since news broke about this issue on Monday, Egypt’s Ministry of Interior has issued a statement denying that a contract had been awarded to See Egypt. Meanwhile, the company’s website—which was fully accessible on Monday—appears to have since been taken offline. See Egypt is purportedly a sister company to U.S.-basedBlue Coat Systems, Inc.—a connection Blue Coat denies. A lawsuit challenging Egypt’s online surveillance program was filed in June; the case remains ongoing.
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The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of democratic transitions in the Middle East through analysis, advocacy, and action.