Amnesty slams Egyptian police's plans to track social media

Ahram Online , Thursday 5 Jun 2014

The rights organisation says an online surveillance system requested by the interior ministry is "a threat to privacy and freedom of expression"

Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim
Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim (Photo: AP)

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International has released a press statement expressing alarm over a recently-leaked request for proposal (RFP) by Egypt's interior ministry calling for tenders to provide a surveillance system to monitor social networks.

The requested programme would "deal a devastating blow to the rights to privacy and freedom of expression in the country," Amnesty said.

The programme – detailed in the RFP as needed to monitor an array of content including terrorist activity but also contempt of religion, pornography and defamation of public norms and morals – sparks "serious fears that systematic monitoring of social media networks will be used by the authorities to further clamp down on the slightest sign of dissent," the Amnesty statement said.

Amnesty said it is worried that Egypt, which has a history of clamping down on dissent, will violate rights to privacy supposedly safeguarded by the Egyptian constitution.

Police officials, including Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, have vowed the program won't violate the constitution, insisting that any breach of private accounts will only be carried out through judicial order.

The RFP included requests for a system capable of monitoring WhatAapp and Viber, as well as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

"Amnesty International recognises that in some cases, states may legitimately need to resort to targeted covert surveillance for reasons of national security. However, indiscriminate mass surveillance is an unnecessary and disproportionate interference with the right to privacy," read the statement.

It urged Egypt's president-elect Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to ensure rule of law and the safeguarding of freedom of expression and the right to privacy as stipulated by Egyptian and international law.

Rights activists have criticised the ministry's RFP, saying Egypt has no legislation regulating the monitoring of digital correspondence. Some point to alleged mounting evidence that the interior ministry is already accessing private social networking accounts on a regular basis.

The Amnesty statement also quoted its Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui saying: "Egypt’s security forces have a track record of abuse and enjoyed virtual total impunity. Putting such equipment in the hands of unaccountable security forces is a recipe for abuse."

"Over the past year the authorities have waged a full-scale clamp down on critical voices, introducing a repressive new protest law and drafting an overly broad and vague anti-terrorism legislation. Electronic communications have been monitored by successive Egyptian governments in the past. Activists have also been arrested and prosecuted for content they have posted on social media," the statement added.

While Egyptian police officials cited the use of similar programmes in other countries, Amnesty nullified the argument by stating that their use in the US and UK are breaches of international law.

"The Egyptian authorities should not replicate illegal programmes that have been used by other countries to violate the right to privacy," Sahraoui was quoted as saying in the statement.

"Companies who bid for the contract to carry out surveillance are also likely to be in breach of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the corporate responsibility to respect human rights," the statement read.

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