Egypt's interior minister insists that a new security system designed to monitor social media sites in Egypt is part of an effort to improve the ministry's technical capacities and will not interfere with liberties and freedom of expression.
On Sunday, local Arabic newspaper Al-Watan leaked a request for proposal (RFP) from the interior ministry outlining a programme to "detect social network security threats and identify persons representing a danger to society."
In a statement to state news agency MENA, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said the system aims to follow increasingly relevant security problems through social media such as terrorism, explosives manufacturing and assassination operations.
The system will also scan the sites to analyse and identify "destructive ideas" and conduct opinion polls to gauge their influence on youth.
The ministry's RFP contained an introduction articulating its view that social media is used for criminal activity and could pose a threat to society in its capability to spread "destructive ideas" – including extremism, insulting religions and pornography – as well as anti-state strategies and tactics.
The minister added that the program will enhance decision-making by providing accurate information and statistics about topics the ministry considers illegal or against public morals and traditions.
The RFP specified the websites Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as priorities for data analysis, but also requested the possibility of following local and international online forums and news websites.
The proposal request also mentioned its need for creating a database for influential persons and persons of interests and registering their connections with others.
Not surprisingly, the RFP sparked a debate among Egyptian social media users, who used the Arabic hashtag "we're being watched" to discuss and poke fun at the prospective programme.
Egyptian police have already announced that they monitor social networking websites and have arrested many suspects they claim have set up Facebook pages used to incite violence against police and army forces, who have been targeted by militant groups since the violent dispersal of a Muslim Brotherhood sit-in in August of last year.
Ramy Raoof, a digital security expert, told Ahram Online the RFP isn't fundamentally different from practices already in use by the Egyptian security apparatus.
"The RFP is an attempt to expand vigorous surveillance of web and mobile platforms already in use by police to encompass more popular media websites and online journals, assess public opinion and even create trends by creating accounts on such websites to flush them with specific content," Raoof said.
One of the points in the RFP requires the capability of creating multiple accounts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Egypt has no laws regulating the use of digital information or online privacy.
Egypt's National Security apparatus, previously known as State Security, is infamous for spying on citizens during the era of ousted president Hosni Mubarak and was instrumental in quashing dissent against him.