Sources: Interference with Uber app tied to company’s refusal to share user data with security bodies

A refusal to give authorities access to customer data and its data server is the reason why Uber users in Egypt have experienced interference in using the application over the last two weeks, according to two sources close to the ongoing negotiations between the government and the intelligent transport sector.

The negotiations concern the bylaws of a law on land transport that was passed by the Parliament in May and ratified by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in June. The law obliges ride-hailing companies like Uber and Careem to share user data with security bodies on request.

One of the two sources, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said negotiations between Uber and the government were going well until a few weeks ago, when the government suddenly withdrew after unnamed security bodies insisted that they should be able to obtain access to the data and keep it inside Egypt.

The escalation follows increased efforts by the government to bolster its ability to intercept and monitor messages and data sent over the internet.

While Uber is not completely blocked in Egypt, it is experiencing interference across different service providers, according to one of the sources. Nonetheless, this has had an effect on operations.

Amr Abulqasem, a manager at BH Travel, one of the contractors Uber Egypt employs to network with drivers, told Mada Masr that the disruption to the app in recent days forced many drivers to stop working. According to one of the sources close to the negotiations, there are 200,000 drivers working for the California-based ride-hailing app in Egypt, and at least tens of thousands of them have taken a financial hit due to the service disruption.

Abulqasem added that Uber officials informed him that the problem was being caused by Egyptian telecommunications company WE, the mobile service provider of the state-owned Telecom Egypt. 

Mada Masr reached out to Abdellatif Waked, the regional manager of Uber Egypt, but he did not respond to our request for comment at the time of publication. 

Article 9 of the law regulating land transport allows security bodies to obtain customers’ data from companies with a decree from the prime minister based on a request from National Security bodies, but without judicial or prosecution warrants. The law does not oblige companies to keep customer data on servers inside Egypt, but it does oblige them to keep data for 180 days.

Local media outlets reported that the Uber Egypt website was blocked at the beginning of January. One of the two sources who spoke to Mada Masr confirmed this and said the issue was discussed at a January 9 meeting between Investment Minister Sahar Nasr and Uber directors, including the company’s chief trust and security officer Matt Olsen.

One source also said that several ministerial and governmental bodies had told Uber and Careem that they understood the companies’ refusal to share data or keep servers inside Egypt, but other parties in the government and security bodies have insisted on having access to the live network of hailed rides and on keeping that data in the country.

One of the sources said that Dubai-based Careem decided not to take part in the ongoing dispute. According to the source, the disruption to Uber’s services has caused a hike in customers for Careem.

The government has made several attempts in recent years to secure access to online user data. In 2016, for example, it blocked Facebook’s free internet project after the company refused to disclose customer data, as reported by Reuters.

It entered into negotiations with Uber and Careem in 2017 in the hopes of gaining access to customer data, including live location data for all journeys, according to the New York Times. Uber rejected the request and no cooperation agreement with Careem could be reached, but the two companies were forced to hand over at least some data after the passing of the new law in May, at it gives the authorities the right to access their data without a court order.

This month another disagreement arose between the companies and the ministerial committee responsible for drafting the bylaws, for its insistence on levying fees of between LE2 and 5 on each ride.

Despite the disruption to Uber’s service in Egypt, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly met with Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi on the sidelines of the Davos Economic Forum last week and agreed to expand Uber’s investments in Egypt, according to an official statement published on the Cabinet website.

Mohamed Hamama 

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