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EXCLUSIVE: Egypt Begins Surveillance Of Facebook, Twitter, And Skype On Unprecedented Scale

“We are looking at any conversation, any interaction, we might find worrying or would want to keep a closer eye on.” Sheera Frenkel reports from Jerusalem and Maged Atef from Cairo for BuzzFeed News.

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JERUSALEM and CAIRO — Egyptians’ online communications are now being monitored by the sister company of an American cybersecurity firm, giving the Egyptian government an unprecedented ability to comb through data from Skype, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, among others.

See Egypt, the sister company of the U.S.-based Blue Coat, won the contract over the summer, beating out the British Gamma System, and the Israeli-founded Narus System. See Egypt has begun monitoring Egyptians’ online communications, according to several Egyptian government officials who spoke to BuzzFeed News.

“See Egypt has already worked with the government and has strong ties to the State Security Services,” said one official. He asked to remain anonymous, to protect his position within the government. “They were a natural choice and their system is already winning praise.”

While Egypt has tracked online communication in the past using surveillance systems that allowed officials to loosely monitor local networks, See Egypt is the first time the government will be widely using the Deep Packet Inspection technology that enables geolocation, tracking, and extensive monitoring of internet traffic.

“Our job as a company is to give them the system. I train the government how to run it and we give them the program,” Ali Miniesy, the CEO of See Egypt, told BuzzFeed News. He confirmed that his company, which is registered in Egypt, had submitted a tender to provide surveillance services for Egypt, but did not say whether that tender had been accepted.

He said they had been contracted to provide Egypt’s State Security with the system, and to teach officials how to comb through data gathered from email accounts and social media sites.

“The program, the training we give, can also be used to penetrate WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, or other programs if needed,” said Miniesy, adding it was a system similar to that used by most Western governments, including the United States.

Since the military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government on July 3, 2013, tens of thousands of Egyptian nationals have been rounded up and arrested for taking part in unlawful demonstrations or for being members of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. While many were arrested during protests, the government has increasingly focused on the online communications of groups they see as voices of dissent against the current government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Egyptian officials have publicly said their monitoring of online activity will focus on preventing terror attacks, but one Interior Ministry official who spoke to BuzzFeed said the current mandate was “much broader.”

“We are looking at any conversation, any interaction, we might find worrying or would want to keep a closer eye on,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not permitted to speak to the press. “We are watching conversations between Islamists, or those who discuss Islamism. We are watching communities, which we consider at risk.”

When asked to explain further, the official said those taking part in “debauchery” or “homosexual acts” would be watched “for the protection of Egypt.”

“We are safeguarding the values that are important to Egyptians and which will keep us safe,” said the official.

In recent weeks, Egypt’s LGBT community has issued warnings to avoid using Grindr after rumors spread that Egyptian officials were using the site to arrest gay Egyptian males. The Interior Ministry officials said he wasn’t familiar with Grindr, but that there were “dozens of Facebook groups” used by the LGBT community that were being watched.

Egyptian Human Rights groups have already begun protesting the monitoring of online communications, filing a lawsuit on June 17 alleging that the system used by Egypt “threatens private life and public freedom.”

Their lawsuit, however, could take years to work its way through the courts, and in the meantime the See Egypt technology will continue to be used.

A spokesman for Egypt’s Interior Ministry, Gen. Hany Abd el Lateef, said Egyptians were living in “a free era where everyone can express themselves.”

“Who says we are monitoring your private life? We are monitoring political issues, we need to watch electronic crimes,” he said.

In a copy of the tenders issued by the Interior Ministry, and published on several Egyptian news sites, the ministry spelt out the type of online communications it will be searching for:

Blasphemy and skepticism in religions; regional, religious, racial, and class divisions; spreading of rumors and intentional twisting of facts; throwing accusations; libel; sarcasm; using inappropriate words; calling for the departure of societal pillars; encouraging extremism, violence and dissent; inviting demonstrations, sit-ins and illegal strikes; pornography, looseness, and lack of morality; educating methods of making explosives and assault, chaos and riot tactics; calling for normalizing relations with enemies and circumventing the state’s strategy in this regard; fishing for honest mistakes, hunting flesh; taking statements out of context; and spreading hoaxes and claims of miracles.

Eva Blum-Dumontet, an advocacy officer with the U.K.-based NGO Privacy International, has studied Egypt’s online surveillance networks. In the past, she said, Egyptian authorities have run small teams of experts who focus on researching a specific person or group.

“This new software makes it very easy to target anyone, en masse. The user simply says, ‘I want to look for atheists, or homosexuals,’ and the company gets all the data. It’s extremely easy,” said Blum-Dumontet.

She added that there were concerns that individuals would be targeted for their online activity, even if they had never taken part in protests, or what the Egyptian authorities consider illegal activity.

“There is a difference between what you do on social media and what you do in the real world. The concern is that people who are not necessarily our protesting would suddenly be on the radar of the Egyptian authorities because they liked a status on Facebook or retweeted something,” said Blum-Dumontet.

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Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
Contact Sheera Frenkel at Sheera.Frenkel@buzzfeed.com.
 
 

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