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Egypt UPR: a missed opportunity to address threats to the right to privacy

In Egypt, the internet, social media and online engagement have provided a critical platform in recent years for Egyptians to express their frustration and demand change after years of social, economic and political repression. The use of social media during protests, and the government's recent attempts to crack down on the use of services like Twitter and Facebook, have been widely reported.

So it was with shock and disappointment that Privacy International looked on earlier this month as the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Period Review (UPR) mechanism failed to address privacy and surveillance issues in any significant manner.

Given the concerns that we and our partners raised in our joint submission to the UPR earlier this year and other reports by human rights organisations on the increasingly worrying human rights situation in Egypt, one wonders why the Human Rights Council (HRC) is so disconnected from the reality we see and the Egyptian people live.

While we acknowledge and support the issues raised during the official review of Egypt regarding the demonstration law and the NGO law amongst others are of increasing concern, Privacy International takes this opportunity to outline once again the key concerns when it comes to the right to privacy in Egypt.

20th UPR session: Egypt

Earlier this year, Privacy International submitted a joint stakeholder report with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, and the Association for Progressive Communication. Our submission raised concerns about the protection and promotion on the right to privacy in Egypt before the HRC for consideration in view of Egypt's review.

The right to privacy has been absent from the issues raised in the UPR mechanisms in the past, and unfortunately Egypt's UPR this time around again failed to address this omission.

Sweden and the Czech Republic had expressed concerns, through the submission of written questions to the Government of Egypt ahead of the official review, on the increased harassment and detention of people using the Internet, censorship, and monitoring of bloggers and others using the internet. However, these issues failed to be brought to the attention of the Human Rights Council during the official review of Egypt.

This failure poses a significant problem. Only the issues raised during this process form part of the questions and recommendations included in the report of the Working Group, which will guide and serve as a benchmark for reviewing Egypt's human rights situation in 2019. By not mentioning or addressing the right to privacy during the UPR, the review of Egypt's human rights situation will not include one of the most relevant and pressing issues facing Egyptians today.

Addressing the right to privacy

As laid out in our joint submission, below are the key concerns about the right to privacy in Egypt.

Expansive powers of Egyptians intelligence services

There are four intelligence agencies in Egypt and their activities remain very secretive, leaving limited room for oversight and accountability mechanisms and procedures. Even though the Telecommunications Act requires a warrant for some surveillance activities, this requirement is not practically enforced and a lack of oversight prevents us from obtaining further information about the process.

Researchers at Citizen Lab have, for instance, revealed the use of the trojan FinFisher, which grants full remote access to the targeted computer. They also have evidence that Hacking Team's Remote Control System was used by the Egyptian government and have documented the presence of Blue Coat appliances, an internet monitoring system that allows the inspection of the data circulating on the web, including even encrypted web traffic. Under the Mubarak era, the use of a similar technology – at the time from the company Narus – had already been exposed.

More recently, a call for tender leaked in June revealed that the Ministry of Interior was planning on acquiring an equipment for open source intelligence in order to “conduct wide searches on various networks to find everything that is a violation of the law, the spreading of destructive ideas that help spreading chaos, tensions and corruption in society.” The Ministry of Interior was specifically designing the system for police forces.

Unlawful communication monitoring

Despite the July 8 Constitutional Declaration and the recently adopted 2014 Constitution, which provides for the privacy of the home, correspondence, telephone calls, and other means of communication, there have been reports of unlawful monitoring of communications particularly of political dissidents, journalists and human rights defenders.

 

Revealingly, Vodafone's June 2014 Law Enforcement Disclosure Report stated that “the armed forces and national security agencies have broad latitude to intercept communications with or without an operator’s control or oversight” and “are largely exempt from any control or oversight by the communications regulator.”

Additional policies of concern relate to the policy of mandatory SIM card registration and the legal restrictions on anonymity and the use of encryption. Both of these policies facilitate surveillance and make tracking and monitoring of users easier for law enforcement and government. Given the increased and on-going crackdown on civil society, despite reassures from the authorities to the contrary, this is of extreme concern.

Access to communications data, and targeted and mass surveillance

The Egyptian General Intelligence Service (EGIS), the Military Intelligence Service, the Administrative Control Authority, the National Security Investigations Bureau (NSIB), and the Presidency are granted extensive surveillance powers under the Telecommunication Regulation Law, No 10 of 2003. In addition, there has been documented evidence of the deployment of surveillance technologies to penetrate email systems, and monitor social media activities. 

Over the course of the past year, several examples of abusive surveillance have emerged. A female activist has for instance received “printouts of her emails and private online chats with her partner” that had been slipped under her door back in December 2013. Civil society and independent media have also observed a heightened crackdown on the LGBT community, suggesting that they have become subjects of surveillance.

A missed opportunity for the Human Rights Council

Given the welcome developments at the UN when it comes to the right to privacy, we believe that the Human Rights Council and its members neglected to take the review of Egypt as an opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to promotion and protection of the right to privacy and take a strong stand on the on-going human rights violations in Egypt.

We hope that when another opportunity arises, particularly with the upcoming UPR of Turkey and Kenya at the 21st session in February 2015 and the on-going discussions at the UN General Assembly, the Human Rights Council will seize the occasion to challenge States on their respect for and protection of the right to privacy.