On Tuesday the Administrative Court rejected a lawsuit filed by a group of concerned citizens and human rights organizations contesting the Interior Ministry’s proposed project to monitor social networking sites for what it deems to be security threats. The lawsuit was dismissed on the basis that the plaintiffs had no standing in the case.
Hassan al-Azhari, a lawyer from the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), told Mada Masr that he would contest the ruling before the Supreme Administrative Court.
The AFTE published the terms and conditions of the surveillance project’s public tender in June 2014. The Interior Ministry requested technical systems and software with the ability to sweep social media sites and collect, group and then classify data, while also simplifying the process of sifting through and monitoring users’ content in both Latin and Arabic scripts. The tender required that this technology be linked with the ministry’s other security systems.
According to the text of the lawsuit brought before the Administrative Court, the ministry’s proposed project for monitoring social media sites represents “a flagrant violation of privacy.” Particularly as the public tender’s terms and conditions demand monitoring systems with wide-ranging technical options which would enable police personnel to monitor users on the basis of suspicion alone. It outlines that the ministry is seeking means to facilitate the profiling of users based on their age, race, gender, locality and place of residence, among other factors. If placed at the disposal of the Interior Ministry, such technology would allow its employees to easily collect users’ personal data, “even if they are not acting on the orders of an investigating authority.”
Other technologies highlighted in the lawsuit requested by the Interior Ministry include a monitoring system capable of scanning different types of electronic documents, for example those using PDF, TXT and DOC formats, while analyzing the vocabulary used. According to the plaintiffs, this exposes the ministry’s intention “to spy on users by browsing through their personal files,” striking at “the core of privacy, which must not be violated.”
The lawsuit also points out that the ministry aims to monitor applications such as Whatsapp and Viber, despite the fact they are used as a means of private communication between individuals, and whose content is not open or available to the public.
In September 2016, the State Commissioners Authority issued a report detailing its findings on the lawsuit against the planned surveillance project, in which it recommended its dismissal. According to these findings “although the Constitution safeguards these rights and freedoms, it is on the condition that they do not exceed the limits of legality, or compromise national security or public order.”
The report also outlined that the surveillance program should only be utilized to access “content that is available for anyone to view merely by accessing the internet, and not through the penetration of personal accounts, or through the screening of personal data,” adding that the authorities “must not prevent anyone from freely expressing their opinions on social networking sites.”
Azhari commented that the authority’s conclusions are weak in their focus, as “the findings are mostly focused on the formal proceedings of the plaintiffs,” rather than focusing on the issue of online freedoms and freedom of expression.
He also noted that they did not refer to experts or to technical specialists in the field while compiling the report.
Lawyer Ahmed Ezzat pointed to an article he wrote in September 2014 regarding the Interior Ministry’s planned surveillance project, which poses that it violates the international principles of human rights pertaining to means of communication. In particular, it does not comply with the principles of necessity and proportionality.
According to Ezzat, these personal rights and freedoms should only be challenged in light of genuine security threats, and only be breached when necessary for the prevention of another equal or greater violation.
IT specialist Ahmed Gharbeia told Mada Masr that the authorities are seeking to monitor online data which is publicly available, alongside comprehensive surveillance of internet users. “This is similar to watching every person’s movement along the streets of the city,” adding that “monitoring each person movements, while also linking this to data that has been collected – this represents a violation of their privacy, even though they are moving through the public domain.”
When it comes to the extent of its online surveillance, the Egyptian state has already revealed its willingness to take a host of punitive actions against individuals in its crosshairs.
In January 2015 an Egyptian court sentenced student Karim al-Banna to three years in prison following a public declaration of atheism on his personal Facebook account. Similarly, in recent years, the government has pursued disciplinary measures against several judges, university professors, students and doctors merely because of views and opinions shared on Facebook.
Gharbeia added that the state’s scrutiny and surveillance of social networking sites prompts users to practice a form of self-censorship in terms of their online activities. He concluded: “the user does not know what can be used against them. Merely the conscious feeling that one is being monitored is a violation of privacy.”
Translated by Jano Charbel