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The means of communication in Egypt: more restrictions and censorship

July 11, 2023 at 2:06 pm

A journalist gathers signs reading ‘Journalism Is Not A Crime’ on February 27, 2014 [Adam Berry/Getty Images]

It was not surprising to followers and observers of the situation that the Egyptian regime had obtained an open-source intelligence platform from an Israeli company, which would enhance its ability to monitor websites and means of communication and pursue its opponents.

This security and intelligence monitoring is reinforced by a tight legislative system that provides the current President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s regime with legal means to pursue activists on social media, hunt opponents and manage the compass of public opinion.

Over the past years, specifically after the 3 July, 2013 coup, the Egyptian authorities intensified their measures to monitor the virtual world, after it sparked the 25 January, 2011 revolution that overthrew the regime of the late President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak.

Qualitative capabilities

The new Israeli Webint Centre platform by the Israeli company, Bler, which was acquired by the Egyptian General Intelligence, provides qualitative capabilities that go beyond simply monitoring social networks, according to France’s Intelligence Online.

The Israeli platform allows the Egyptian side to determine the geographical location of the target using data from social networks, as well as the avatar management system. In addition to this, it is an extension to monitor dark web sites, which is a destination for political opponents who face restrictions on regular Internet applications.

The dark internet is like a secret spider web that cannot be discovered using traditional search engines and browsers, through which various secret transactions take place. One can navigate to it and browse its sites without the person leaving any traces, meaning, their identities are hidden and their activities are not registered on search engines.

The Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) platform collects, classifies and analyses the massive publicly available content from public sources, such as photos, videos, social media posts, webinars, conferences, satellite images, books, articles, data, studies, blogs and websites. This provides a massive information infrastructure for the security services, and strengthens their control systems over social networks, applications and mobile devices.

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OSINT’s technologies include using search engines and social media to find sensitive information, collecting personal information, conducting open-source intelligence and forensic analysis, collecting email addresses, IP addresses, DNS records, the deep web, discovering connected devices and networks and exploring the web.

The open intelligence platform combs public websites, social media and other online sources, analyses data, identifies patterns and trends, and presents results and conclusions, enabling countries and governments to proactively identify potential threats, monitor public opinions and concerns and conduct comprehensive risk assessments.

Digital espionage

This step is not the first of its kind for the Egyptian intelligence services, which have previously obtained advanced technologies to increase their ability in electronic surveillance and tracking. In 2013, it had previously obtained the ProxySG software from the American company, Blue Coat Systems, which allows for determining users’ geographical location, tracking, monitoring and hacking WhatsApp, Viber, Skype and many other programs.

The pace of Egyptian efforts to monitor and penetrate the means of communication increased. In mid-2014, tenders called for by the Egyptian Ministry of Interior were revealed, and were won by Misr Systems Engineering (SEE), the agent for Blue Coat, in order to provide new systems for illegal mass surveillance of social networking sites in the country.

In the same year, Egypt obtained an information program made by the French company, Nexa Technology, called Cerebro, which is part of a huge cyber monitoring system, which was used to track opponents of the Al-Sisi regime. It was the subject of a French investigation regarding its use in acts of repression and violations in Arab countries, including Egypt, according to confidential documents published by the French investigative website, Disclose, in 2021.

The program provides the ability to analyse data and related information in billions of recorded conversations, save network connections data, including IP addresses and obtain the contents of e-mail inboxes, instant messages, social networks and search engine searches.

Subsequently, the French company, Ercom-Suneris, provided the Egyptians with the Cortex vortex phone spying program, which determines the geographical location of any person by triangulating the location of the base stations that their phone connects to, even without making any calls.

Emirati support

Thanks to the estimated $168 million in Emirati support to enhance Al-Sisi’s repressive arsenal with digital espionage capabilities, Egypt has obtained a super-powerful search engine called EXALEAD made by Dassault Systems (the technological branch of the French arms and aircraft manufacturer, Rafale), according to the Disclosure documents.

Thanks to the capabilities of EXALEAD, various databases were linked, including Egyptian identity cards, passports and other documents. This helped the Egyptian regime to arrest thousands, and forcibly disappear dissidents, according to human rights organisations.

An Egyptian activist who was recently released told Middle East Monitor, on the condition of anonymity, that a photo he had posted on a social media site, showing him with old friends, had caused his arrest for more than a year because one of his friends was an opponent of the current President. This is despite the fact that his friendship dated back 10 years before Al-Sisi took control of the country.

Egypt not only relied on French technology in the field of bugging and surveillance but, in 2015, according to leaked documents from the Italian company, Hacking Team, it purchased software to spy on applications, phone calls, text messages and emails, use of the devices’ built-in camera and microphone, chat applications and spy on files stored on devices.

In 2018, the Egyptian authorities increased their espionage capabilities by using the Pegasus spyware program produced by the Israeli company, NSO, which tricks the targeted person into clicking on a malicious link and uses a series of unknown vulnerabilities to penetrate digital protection features.

In September 2020, Amnesty International revealed that the Egyptian regime used surveillance and espionage software produced by the German company, GAMMA, for spyware, with the aim of targeting civil society organisations and human rights defenders. Also, in the same year, it was revealed that the Egyptian government used technology produced by the American company, Sandvine, to block websites.

The dangerous issue is that this technology was used systematically and illegally against dissidents, which prompted the French Judiciary, in October 2021, to charge Nexa Technologies with complicity in torture and enforced disappearance in Egypt between 2014 and 2021.

According to a human rights source, who spoke to Middle East Monitor on condition of anonymity, electronic committees affiliated with security and sovereign authorities periodically monitor opponents, track those interacting with any hashtags offensive to Al-Sisi and his security services, and report them, as well as monitor those who share posts criticising the situation in the country, while tracking and infiltrating anti-regime groups.

Legal protection

Egypt strengthens its digital espionage machine with a legal and legislative system led by, but not limited to, the Regulating the Press and Media law issued in 2018. It allows monitoring all websites and accounts on communication sites that have more than 5,000 followers, and blocking these accounts, without judicial permission, under the pretext of publishing or broadcasting “false” news or inciting violations of the law.

Under this cover, hundreds of websites have been blocked in Egypt since 2017, up to now. The number of blocked websites has exceeded 600, including more than 100 news and media websites, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

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Article 2 of the Information Technology Crime Law legalises comprehensive monitoring of communications in Egypt, obligating telecommunications companies to save and store customer usage data for a period of 180 days, including phone calls, text messages, websites visited and applications used on smartphones and computers.

It is both surprising and frightening that, according to a political analyst who asked not to be named, the Egyptian espionage system is not only concerned with eavesdropping on the Egyptian people but, rather, spying on the State’s institutions too, noting that the Disclosure documents revealed that 4 Egyptian parties had bought spy devices, namely the General Intelligence and its military counterpart (Military Intelligence), National Security (Internal Intelligence Agency) and Administrative Control (an independent body reporting to the President of the Republic).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.