Egypt’s plan for mass surveillance of social media an attack on internet privacy and freedom of expression
A call for tenders to introduce a new system to carry out indiscriminate mass surveillance of social media in Egypt would deal a devastating blow to the rights to privacy and freedom of expression in the country, said Amnesty International.
Under the proposed plans, disclosed in a leaked tender by the Ministry of Interior this week, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and possibly mobile phone applications such as WhatsApp, Viber and Instagram would be systematically monitored.
“The plans by the Egyptian authorities to indiscriminately monitor social media a few months after the adoption of a new constitution guaranteeing the right to privacy shows the little regard they have for human rights or the rule of law. The plans also spark 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,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director for Amnesty International.
“The Egyptian authorities have an abysmal track record when it comes to respecting the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly. A system to conduct indiscriminate surveillance of social media on a mass scale risks becoming yet another instrument in the Egyptian government’s toolbox of state repression.”
In the leaked document, the Interior Ministry calls for tenders for a more sophisticated mass monitoring system which will scan social media networks for 26 topics including defamation of religion, calling for illegal demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins as well as terrorism and inciting violence. However, the full list of topics to be monitored has not been made public, leaving individuals unsure of whether and when their communications will be targeted.
The proposed monitoring programme violates the right to privacy guaranteed by both the Egyptian constitution and international law. Egyptian law only allows targeted interception of communications under judicial oversight and for a limited period of time and does not permit indiscriminate mass surveillance.
Amnesty International is calling for the government to ensure that any surveillance programmes comply with the general principles under international law of legality, necessity, proportionality and judicial accountability. As Egypt's new president, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, must ensure the application of rule of law and respect the right to privacy and freedom of expression ensured under Egyptian and International Law.
Amnesty International recognizes 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. Any surveillance of communications, including through social media, must comply with human rights law obligations which balance the duty of the state to protect security with the right to privacy, freedom of expression and other human rights.
Despite repeated claims by the Egyptian authorities that the measures are intended to combat terrorism and would not be used to crackdown on freedom of expression there is an alarming body of evidence to undermine this claim.
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.
“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,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
Thousands of Mohamed Morsi’s supporters are held in Egyptian prisons for exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly. Amnesty International has documented cases where peaceful protestors have been arrested, tortured or ill-treated. Dozens of Egyptians have also been arrested for electronic communications and posts including on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter.
“Journalists, writers, bloggers have been targeted. An attempt to stifle posts on Twitter, Facebook and other networks will fuel fears that in Egypt today, there is no space for people to openly express their views free from persecution,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
The Minister of Interior announced in a statement that one of the conditions in the call for tenders is that the system has previously been used by the USA or European States. Amnesty International considers that indiscriminate mass surveillance conducted in the USA and the United Kingdom, among other European States, violates both national and international human rights law.
“The Egyptian authorities should not replicate illegal programmes that have been used by other countries to violate the right to privacy,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
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 & the corporate responsibility to respect human rights.
On 1 June 2014, Al Watan newspaper, an Egyptian newspaper, published a leaked call for tenders from the Ministry of Interior seeking companies to establish a system for “monitoring social media”.
Mohamed Ibrahim, the Minister of Interior confirmed in Egyptian media and newspapers that the ministry had called for tenders from companies to establish the system allegedly to combat terrorism and protect national security. In a statement to the Al Ahram News Paper on 2 June he said that the system would use selectors (search terms) that relate to activities that are considered illegal under Egyptian law to track individuals using these words in their communications. He claimed that this system would not be used to crackdown on freedom of expression.
Article 57 of the recently adopted Egyptian constitution protects the right to privacy and states that, “postal, telegraphic and electronic correspondences, telephone calls, and other means of communication are inviolable, and their confidentiality is guaranteed. They may not be confiscated, revealed or monitored except by virtue of a reasoned judicial order, for a definite period, and only in the cases defined by Law”.
Egypt also has obligations under international law to ensure enjoyment of the right to privacy. For example Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights articulates the right to privacy. Therefore under both national and international law surveillance programmes must meet minimum requirements. In particular, communications surveillance must comply with the general principles of legality, necessity, proportionality and judicial accountability.
All indiscriminate mass surveillance, such as that proposed in Egypt, constitutes an unnecessary and disproportionate interference with the right to privacy.