Egyptian Court approves new Government online spying project

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A court in Egypt has sanctioned the Government there to use spyware to monitor Egyptian internet users, on the pretext of national security reasons.

The ruling means that the people of Egypt will be subject to what the Government is describing as ‘limited surveillance’ which they say is necessary to protect national security. They justified the infringement into people’s right to privacy by saying “Constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of information are “conditional if national security or public order is deemed to be at risk.”

New Powers

The main target of the new powers appears to be social media users, with users of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter likely to have their accounts monitored to see if anything they post could “pose harm to society.”

What sort of harm do the Egyptian authorities fear? Well, the main focus seems to be criticism of the Egyptian state and its government and this is an area where the current regime has cracked down before.

Since they overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood government headed by President Mohammed Morsi, the crackdown on political opposition, especially from the brotherhood, has been intense. But it has not stopped there, with Privacy International highlighting various incidents of human rights activists being targeted as well.

At the end of last year, for example, they suspended access to Facebook’s Free Basics internet service in the country because Facebook refused to let them spy on its users.

Existing surveillance powers

It is already on record that the Egyptian authorities have used malware in the past as part of their online surveillance programmes. It has also been proved that they bought packet inspection technology from a US company, Narus, under the regime of former President Mubarak and have used similar technology from Blue Coat, another US company.

Which brings us to the ongoing case Khaled al-Balshi, the head of Egypt’s journalist union freedom committee. He was arrested back in April on charges of inciting protest and disturbing the public peace.

The complaint against him was brought by the legal assistant to Egypt’s Minister of the Interior and related to various initiatives in support of a number of domestic and international journalists who have been imprisoned in the country.

What makes this case so telling is that amongst the evidence which has been produced against al-Balshi in court is video and screenshots showing his Twitter and Facebook profiles.

The New Norm

Put all of this together and it becomes clear that the approval of this new spying project is the latest in a long line of steps being taken by the Egyptian government to clamp down on online freedoms in order to cement their control of the country.

If any Egyptian citizens were under the illusion that their online and social media activity was private, which has rarely been the case in recent years, this should bring an end to that.

The fact remains that unless they are using a VPN or similar tool to encrypt their online activity and stop prying eyes from seeing what they are doing online, the likelihood is someone is keeping tabs on them.

The government might claim that this is a limited power and only used in exceptional circumstances, but the fact remains that such surveillance powers are currently the norm in modern day Egypt.

 

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