The original version of this post was published on the AFTE blog.
On June 17, 2014, a number of human rights groups and concerned citizens filed lawsuit number 63055/68 in Egypt's Administrative Court asking to stop a government call for proposals to procure software capable of monitoring public posts and private conversations of social media users.
Mass surveillance at this level circumvents fundamental aspects of due process such as obtaining a judicial warrant prior to initiating monitoring of an individual. It constitutes a violation of an entire array of unalienable public rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution of Egypt, including the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of information, privacy, and security.
The Minister of Interior called for the purchase of a so-called “public opinion measuring system” as part of the “Social Networking Security Hazard Monitoring Project.” The call for proposals was published by AlWatan on June 1, 2014. Incomplete scans of the document published on the news website showed technical specifications for a system that operates as part of a strategy aiming to “monitor, list, analyze, execute, support, confront, and refute” a number of “destructive ideas”, according to the Ministry. These include:
…blasphemy and skepticism in religions; regional, religious, racial, and class divisions; spreading of rumors and intentional twisting of facts; throwing accusations; libel; sarcasm; using inappropriate words; calling for the departure of societal pillars; encouraging extremism, violence and dissent; inviting demonstrations, sit-ins and illegal strikes; pornography, looseness, and lack of morality; educating methods of making explosives and assault, chaos and riot tactics; calling for normalizing relations with enemies and circumventing the state’s strategy in this regard; fishing for honest mistakes, hunting flesh; taking statements out of context; and spreading hoaxes and claims of miracles.
The organizations undersigned believe that the system the Ministry is in the process of procuring not only threatens the privacy of millions of Internet users by trying to monitor private and personal communications, such as those taking place on Viber and Whatsapp. The system also violates public freedoms by continuously searching and cataloging social interactions on social networks, a very important part of the public sphere today in any free and democratic society.
Mere existence of such a system is a violation of due process as guaranteed by the Criminal Procedure Code and international standards. It allows the executive branch of government to exercise powers reserved for the legislative and the judiciary. More importantly, it constitutes a restriction of the rights and freedoms of millions in a fashion that is unnecessary and disproportionate to any lawful aims this system is supposed to have.
Privacy in the public sphere is necessary for a free and stable political life. Assaulting it is a sign of totalitarianism. The Ministry of Interior should be first to abide by the law, which it is mandated to enforce, instead of violating it for the sake of vague things like calling for the departure of social pillars’, or ‘sarcasm’, ‘fishing for honest mistakes’, and ‘spreading hoaxes’, which are not part of the police mandate.
The undersigned organizations are demanding that Egyptian authorities honor their international commitments, including the rights to privacy, freedom of information and freedom of expression as enshrined in Articles 17, 18, and 19 of the International Covenant of Civic and Political Rights, and stop this project immediately.
The undersigned organizations call on all those whose rights are violated by social media monitoring to attend the first session of the Administrative Court and to join the lawsuit to protect their basic rights of privacy and freedom of expression.
Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE)
Arab Digital Expression Foundation (ADEF)
Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR)
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
Hisham Mubarak Law Center (HMLC)
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
Egyptian Foundation for the Advancement of Children Conditions
Centre for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance
New Woman Foundation
El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence
More coverage: Social Networks Security Hazard Monitoring Project Booklet