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Egypt: how companies help the government spy on activists

One of the demands of the Egyptian revolution was to demolish one of the well-known security services for torture, grave human rights violations and spying on activists which is the State Security Investigations (SSI) and to have its officers set onto trials.

Few weeks ago when authorities didn’t respond immediately to people’s demand, many Egyptians stormed SSI headquarters to protect the evidences against SSI offices (including torture equipments and documents). Among those documents where communications between SSI units related to censorship, monitoring online content, controlling computes/ laptops, as well as shutting down communications services.

Those SSI leaks provides many information that I believe all individuals and entities working on right to privacy and freedom of expression and other relevant fields should understand and be aware of.

Since the first 6 April Strike in Egypt in 2008, security agencies and units decided to pay more attention to activist’s communications online and via their cell phones. The SSI established an Emergency Unit, among its roles to:

  • Cut-off the internet in a city, governorate or several ones.
  • Block particulate websites.
  • Get information about netiznes.
  • Shutdown mobile services in telecommunication companies.
  • Shutdown Bulk-SMS services.
  • Make sure telecommunications companies can quickly respond to requests by security authorities.

The SSI did several meetings in the presence of representatives from Ministry of Interior, General Intelligence, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Mass Communication, Ministry of Communications & Information Technology, and the three Telecommunications Companies in Egypt (Vodafone, Mobinil, Etisalat).

In 2009 -and maybe earlier- communications was established from a European-based company with its headquarters in the United Kingdom called Gamma Group International with SSI in Egypt offering them a software that SSI units describe in their internal communications in August 2009 as “high-level security system that have capabilities not provided in other systems, most prominent capabilities is hacking into personal Skype accounts, hacking email accounts associated with Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail, completely control targeted computers” and in another communication in December 2010 “record audio and video chats, record activity taking place around hacked computers with cameras and take copies of its content”.

In those communications between SSI units, the price of the software which is called Finfisher is mentioned to be for 2 million Egyptian pounds.

Here is how Gamma Group International describes itself on their websiteprovides advanced technical surveillance and monitoring solutions and international consultancy to National and State Intelligence Departments and Law Enforcement Agencies.

The most recent communication was a report issued on 1 January 2011 by an IT unit in the SSI after trying a free-trial version of the software.

These kinds of programs developed by Gamma International and similar companies are simply enabling governments and security agencies in the ruling regimes to violate anyone’s privacy, monitor anyone’s activity and impose censorship. Consequently, helping the governments to fabricate cases against political activists and human rights defenders on charges like “destabilize order”, “defaming state leaders”, “spreading rumors to overthrow the regime” and many other charges that regimes set to minimize the work of civil societies and activists towards better human rights situations.

The same situation with the Telecommunications companies in Egypt whom cooperated with Mubarak’s regime to provide information about activists and disable services.

You can read and download the SSI leaks addressed in this post through this links:

  • - State Security Internal Communications About Finfisher – Link [Arabic].
  • - Commercial Offer from Gamma International to State Security – Link [English]
  • - State Security Internal Communications on Monitoring SMS – Link [Arabic]

5 comments

  • Apollo Screed

    Hacking into email accounts, snooping on Skype etc. can be legitimately carried out by soverign governments – usually in the course of anti-terrorism activity and supported by a legislative framework. Yes, even the nasty ole Mubarak government had a legitimate anti-terrorism programme, and the nation had suffered a number of terrorist outrages in recent years. The fact that they chose to use the software for more nefarious purposes simply cannot be blamed on the vendor.

  • Derpy

    That’s hardly the case, Screed. While it’s true that in some countries government hacking into personal accounts is legal for national security or anti-terrorism reasons, legality isn’t sufficient to make such practices moral. What’s more is that although the software developed by these companies can be used for legitimate purposes, it is still the fault of the vendor for dealing with unscrupulous regimes. While the company may not be in any legal trouble, they were still socially irresponsible for selling their product, which could be, and was, easily misused.

  • derpp

    Nokia/Siemens did the same thing in Iran, sold the government a one click system to monitor their citizens

  • Apollo Screed

    Derpy, and that’s the problem isn’t it? Stop companies selling products that might be misused by foreign governments and where do you end? Who sold the Egyptian police the vans they used to run over protestors? Or the communications equipment they used while they had turned off Internet and voice comms to the rest of the population? Or the computers they used the hacking software on? And remember, that Egypt prior to the revolution was, despite its problems, an upstanding member of the international community. When we need to stop the export of ‘dual use’ products such as those discussed above, the international communtiy has resort to sanctions – and has used them effectively in the past. Other than that, we have to accept that we live in a less than perfect world. Don’t distract from the issue by blaming the companies – blame those that choose to misuse their products.

  • Derpy

    I’m saying the companies are 100% to blame, nor am I advocating that all such exports be banned. I’m just saying that these companies are not completely innocent and that a little regulation and responsibility would be nice.

    There are many circumstances in which companies can legitimately sell their products to governments, even when their products are capable of being misused. But you shouldn’t sell surveillance to a regime that’s already notorious for spying on their citizens; when you judge that there’s too much risk of misuse, then it becomes immoral to continue supporting such regimes by selling your products to them. You could argue that the Gamma Group wasn’t aware of what was going on, but that’s just downright unlikely. You can’t deny the fact that they must have consciously been promoting (albeit somewhat indirectly, and certainly legally) the human rights violations of the government.

    There are definitely groups and probably even other companies that are far more guilty than the Gamma Group is in Egypt’s actions, but the Gamma Group isn’t completely innocent either. I get that it wasn’t worth completely boycotting Egyptian commerce, and I’ll even concede that there’s already some laws in place to prevent the misuse of more dangerous products by nefarious governments. But some corporate responsibility would be nice, and it’s irresponsible to say that nothing can be done and leave it at that. The Gamma Group is at least partially responsible for the past problems in Egypt.

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