On June 1, Al-Watan leaked a tender released by Egypt'sInterior Ministry. The tender called for software companies to submit proposals for a surveillance system capable of "detect[ing] social network security threats and identify[ing] persons representing a danger to society." The program the Ministry envisions is entitled the "Social Networks Security Hazard Monitoring System"and would provide real-time monitoring of Facebook, YouTube, Viber, WhatsApp, and Twitter, as well as online forums and news sites, in search of " destructive ideas." Such "destructive ideas" include blasphemy, sarcasm, pornography, political dissent, and any attempts at organizing protests.
The call is not particularly surprising, given that Egypt has a long history of aggressive surveillance of activists' online activities. It is, nevertheless, a sickening reminder of the ways Western companies enable authoritarian regimes to carry out repression. The Ministry's request specifies that the software must have been used in the past by the United States or a European government. Reportedly, seven companies have responded to the call.
It is believed that most of these companies are based in Europe.
It appears likely that some of the usual suspects are involved. These include: Blue Coat, a California-based company whose software has been found in Syria, Iran, Sudan, and Myanmar and is believed to have been used by the Egyptian government as well; Amesys, a French company whose surveillance tools were used by Muammar al-Gaddafi's secret police; Trovicor, a German company accused of enabling the Iranian, Bahraini, and Syrian governments to conduct surveillance; Hacking Team, which is based in Italy and whose software has turned up in Morocco and the United Arab Emirates; and Gamma International, a company based in the United Kingdom and Germany, which has been accused of selling its products to Bahrain, and previously offered its technology to the Mubarak regime.
As Reporters Without Borders notes, when such companies sell to authoritarian regimes, they must be aware that their surveillance technology "can be turned into formidable censorship and surveillance weapons against human rights defenders and independent news providers." When they sell to these regimes, they are complicit in their attempts to crack down on netizens, political activists, and journalists. Similarly, the governments hosting and profiting from these companies need to take steps to ban the export of surveillance technology to all repressive regimes, as the European Union and the United States have done for Iran and Syria.