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Egypt spied on key opposition figures using mobile apps

October 4, 2019 at 12:30 pm

Google Play application seen displayed on a mobile in Ankara, Turkey on 17 July, 2018 [Murat Kaynak/Anadolu Agency]

The Egyptian government is spying on journalists, politicians, activists and lawyers through smartphone apps in a coordinated cyberattack, reports a cybersecurity firm.

According to a report published today by Check Point, which provides research into cyber threats, the government specifically targeted 33 individuals through apps posing as information services but which actually bugged their phone.

One of these apps was iLoud200%, which offered to create storage space but sent locations to the attackers. Another was IndexY that stored, transmitted and recorded call logs to be used by attackers.

Through the apps, which were available on the official Google Play store, authorities were able to target files and emails, identify who users contacted and when, and locate them even when their location services were turned off.

Check Point believes the perpetrators set up a messaging channel on Telegram that said it supported protesters but is in fact administered by the intelligence services. The channel had links to a Facebook page calling for a second revolution and asking new members to identify themselves to the administrator.

The central server used to conduct the attacks was registered to the Egyptian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and geographic coordinates in one of the applications matched that of the Intelligence Service headquarters.

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The attack began in 2016 and has continued until today. Dr Shady Al-Ghazaly Harba was targeted and was arrested last year after criticising the government. Former leader of the Constitution Party Khaled Daoud and academic Hassan Naffaa, who were arrested last month, were among those targeted.

Since protests broke out in Egypt on 20 September the Egyptian authorities have unleashed a severe, renewed crackdown on its citizens, arresting at least 2,661 activists, journalists, lawyers, politicians and former detainees, according to the Egyptian Centre for Economic Rights.

Though protesters eight years ago used social media to overthrow then dictator Hosni Mubarak, today the regime is exploiting these platforms to crackdown on its own citizens.

Several people reported that soldiers were stopping people and checking their Facebook and Twitter accounts as authorities moved to thwart anti-regime activity.

On top of this, social media platforms were intermittently unavailable throughout the demonstrations, including Facebook Messenger and Twitter. Signal, Wire and Telegram were all disrupted.

Last week, the Egyptian government set up a Whatsapp number which citizens could use to report “inflammatory messages, riots or other acts of sabotage” and “messages carrying strange content, calls for mobilisation or crowd incitment as well as any gathering inciting riots to be handled by security agencies.”

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Yesterday, Facebook removed several pages, groups and accounts traced to “unconnected” operations in a number of countries, including in Egypt, accusing them of spreading misleading posts and news articles.

Facebook said the accounts were spreading topics such as criticism of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. The investigation linked part of the activity to the marketing company Flexell in Egypt and found links to the pro-regime Egyptian newspaper El-Fagr.

This is the second such incident this year. After soldiers massacred pro-democracy protesters in the Sudanese capital this summer. Pro-Sudanese military posts on social media were traced back to a digital marketing company in Cairo run by a former military officer who paid $180 a month for people to write messages in support of the military on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Telegram.