Egypt police officials say planned surveillance program is constitutional

Osman El-Sharnoubi, Tuesday 3 Jun 2014

Critics argue that a ministerial request for an online tracking programme will lead to spying on citizens and overly-broad restrictions on what can be published

Interior ministry officials on Monday defended its planned social networking surveillance program after a local newspaper leaked a request for proposal (RFP) drawn up by the ministry for a system to "detect social network security threats and identify persons representing a danger to society."

The ministry says the program will operate in line with the law.

Predictably, the program caused outrage on social media websites as users took aim at the wide-ranging subjects the RFP says it wants to track, which include – aside from terrorist activity – insults to religion, public opinion and traditions, as well as content against public norms and an array of other information the ministry deems negative.

The RFP also contains requests for systems capable of dealing with mobile platforms such as Viber and Whatsapp, known to be private communication platforms, raising fears the ministry intends to spy on citizens.

However, a spokesman for the interior ministry's general directorate for information and documentation, Mohamed Abdel-Wahed, insists the system will not interfere with personal correspondence and won't breach article 57 of the national charter which safeguards the privacy of electronic correspondence.

Lawyer Ahmed Ezzat – director of the legal unit of the Egyptian rights NGO Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression – criticised the RFP, saying there is no law regulating the surveillance of online information.

The legislative vacuum should prevent an executive body like the interior ministry from taking steps towards implementing its program, Ezzat argues.

Ezzat believes the scope of surveillance will lead to self-censorship and has deemed the RFP illegal in that it intends to breach private accounts of social networking users. 

Speaking with private satellite station MBC Misr, Abdel-Wahed, the ministry spokesman, said private accounts will only be accessed with the presence of a court order and that surveillance will only include public media.

He maintains that such systems are used by most countries for tracking criminal activity. He did not, however, comment on the monitoring of a moral nature included in the RFP.

Ezzat also contends the RFP shows intent to break the law via spreading false news: his argument cites a point in the RFP which requests a feature to create multiple accounts on social media websites and publish content simultaneously on several social networking websites.

The RFP does not offer any hints as to the nature of the content in question. But Ezzat feels the tactic can be considered as an official mandate for an unpopular practice claimed to have been used by ousted president Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) for promotion of the party line, namely "electronic committees."

Such "committees" were believed to be groups paid by the NDP to create multiple accounts to flood social media with pro-Mubarak propaganda. Ezzat believes the ministry wants to do the same thing – but more efficiently.

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.

Egypt has no laws regulating the use of digital information or online privacy. 

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