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Egyptian rights groups challenge govt internet surveillance plans

The groups say a police-sponsored programme designed to monitor social networking website is a 'serious breach of the foundations of justice'

Ahram Online , Thursday 19 Jun 2014
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Several Egyptian human rights groups have brought a court case against a recent government decision to introduce a new security system designed to monitor social networking sites.

Earlier in June, the interior ministry -- the body responsible for the police -- said it would implement a social media surveillance programme to track security threats such as terrorism, explosives manufacturing and assassination operations.

According to a request for bids drawn up by the ministry and leaked by a local newspaper, the ministry also wants to track online information about a variety of topics it deems negative including contempt of religion, libel and defamation, public opinion and traditions, as well as content "against public norms".

In a joint statement on Wednesday, eight rights groups strongly condemned the "illegitimate and unconstitutional approach the ministry is adopting to spy on citizens." They said the proposed system constitutes a "serious breach of the foundations of justice" and "an infringement of freedoms and rights."

The groups -- which include the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights -- said the lawsuit was filed on Tuesday to demand the cancellation of the government's decision.

The leaked proposal revealed the government has also requested applications capable of dealing with private communication platforms such as Viber and WhatsApp, sparking fears authorities intends to indiscriminately spy on internet users.

"The proposed system does not only pose a threat to the privacy of millions of internet users in the private domain…but it also invades public freedoms by seeking to generally and constantly inspect what individuals share on social media," the statement added.

The government, however, says the system, which had sparked a public outrage on social media websites, will operate in line with the law.

It said private accounts will only be accessed upon a court order and that surveillance will only include public media.

Observers say the controversial system is meant to expand practices already in use by the country's security apparatus.

The interior ministry was infamous for spying on citizens under deposed president Hosni Mubarak to quash political dissent.

In recent months, authorities have arrested several suspects they claim to have set up Facebook pages used to incite violence against police and army forces, which have been targeted by an Islamist insurgency since last year's ouster of Islamist prsident Mohamed Morsi.

The groups have also slammed what it said are loosely-defined practices authorities deem to be violations on social media that they seek to track, citing examples of violations that include "calls for violating community standards and  ‘spreading superstitions’." They claim some of these alleged breaches do not fall within the scope of police work.

The statement has called on Egypt to abide by international treaties it is bound by with regard to preserving and bolstering human rights and freedom of expression, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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