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Simplifying the Interior Ministry’s quest for surveillance: In Qs and As

1: Firstly, what does privacy mean?

Privacy has many faces. One of them is our use of various means of communication through mobile phones, computers and the Internet, just as we send letters to postal addresses. Letters are private and no one should open them or prevent them from reaching their destination, or prevent senders from sending them or receivers from receiving them, or change their content. Just as postal services are used to send letters from one party to another, communications service providers (such as mobile companies, Internet companies or social media companies) should procure services without looking at the content of their users.

2: What guarantees do we have that these companies will respect our privacy?

Every company has privacy policies. Data protection mandates this. Such policies include what kind of data a company needs to collect from users in order to offer them a service, what data a company doesn’t have the right to have, where the collected data will be stored, for how long, and who has the right to see it — and so on… Besides company policies, the state should also have laws protecting citizens’ data, regulating the collection and storage of  this data and establishing a general framework for companies. These laws should be passed through Parliament with the participation of all relevant stakeholders, such as companies, political parties, human rights organizations, technology experts, academics and journalists.

3: What is the story of the Interior Ministry surveillance that has been circulating?

Since 2008, as digital rights researchers and activists, we have had technical evidence, testimonials, documents and other material that prove that the Ministry of Interior is spying on citizens in a number of ways. For the Ministry of Interior to be able to monitor certain things, there has to be collaboration with the communications sector, such as mobile and Internet companies. There are also certain things that the Ministry of Interior needs software and tools from foreign companies working in the field of surveillance in order to be able to monitor them. In 2011, after State Security was stormed, documents were found that showed meeting minutes the Ministry of Interior used to have with mobile and Internet service providers in Egypt, in order to organize joint surveillance. Other documents show technical pitches from surveillance companies. This has evidenced censorship and surveillance by the Ministry in collaboration with companies both inside Egypt and through the acquisition of foreign software.

4: What does this software do exactly?

Such software assists the Ministry of Interior in monitoring Internet activity and users. For example, email accounts (hosted by different companies such as Hotmail, Yahoo or Gmail) and Skype calls are example of Internet activity monitored by the Ministry. The software can penetrate laptops, control them from afar and is able to access personal items, such as pictures, videos and files. It can also see passwords and operate cameras and microphones in laptops remotely.

5: What is the software that the Ministry of Interior is using?

According to the documents that emerged after the State Security headquarters were stormed, we learned that the Ministry of Interior had been in contact since 2009 with a company called Gamma International regarding software it was developing named Finfisher. Research conducted in the last three to four years shows that Egypt has been using various software, including “Bluecoat,” which was installed in August 2012 and “RSC,” which was in use between March 2012 and October 2013.

6: So, since this software has been around for a while, what’s new?

Such software has helped the Ministry of Interior to monitor citizens using the Internet as well as their computer activity in general. However, recently, we learned that the Ministry of Interior intends to monitor public content, collect it and classify it. So the Ministry of Interior wants to observe Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and online newspapers. Moreover, the Ministry has intention to monitor more recent mobile applications such as Whatsapp and Viber.

7: What’s the problem here?

There is no problem with any entity observing public content, since it is available for everyone. The problem is that the Ministry of Interior, in its tender guidelines, requested software that doesn’t just observe public content, but private content too, such as communication on Whatsapp and Viber. Since this communication takes place in a closed, non-public framework, the Ministry of Interior would have to hack these applications or monitor your mobile to obtain the information it wants. In explaining the reason for needing such software, the Ministry of Interior mentioned broad statements, such as “preserving society’s morals and traditions.” These statements have nothing to do with terrorism, which is the conventional excuse used by states to legitimize surveillance.

8: But the Ministry of Interior said it wants the software to protect Egypt from terrorism and other risks.

Of course, the Ministry of Interior’s role is to protect Egypt from terrorism and other risks. But in reality, the software it is requesting won’t achieve this and won’t help the state because its objective is rather fighting opinions and ideas. For example, the software’s primary function is to look for terminology that violates morality or falls outside the context of tradition, according to the Ministry. This has nothing to do with terrorism and is a rather elusive aim. The important point is that there are no regulations or criteria that guarantee that the Ministry of Interior won’t misuse this software to monitor and punish people for moral violations or based on suspicion rather than evidence.

9: So should we be with or against monitoring?

There has to be clear, agreed upon criteria for practicing and implementing monitoring. For example, there should be a law organizing these issues. And there should be a monitoring mechanism to apply this law. Monitoring should follow evidence and should not be conducted as a precaution. Monitoring should take place over a limited period of time and a limited geographical space.

10: By the way, how much does this software cost and how does the Ministry of Interior cover such costs?

This software is very expensive, costing millions of pounds. For example, the Gamma International software was over LE2 million. This is paid for by Egyptian tax payers.