Egyptian policemen stand guard at the scene of a powerful explosion at a police headquarters building around 70 miles north of Cairo that killed at least a dozen people on Dec. 24, 2013.
Egyptian police are looking to develop social media-monitoring software that experts say would be the first to understand multiple forms of written Arabic, and allow government officials to profile any user.
Experts told Mash this system, first reported on June 2, would be the first to combine proficiency in colloquial as well as Romanized Arabic with the ability to zero in on specific government targets. Egyptian officials would be able to identify and analyze everything from patterns of extremist speech to people "spreading hoaxes and claims of miracles," and would also be able to profile the social networks of people who officials want to investigate.
The desired software would be unique in its Arab fluency combined with its ability to identify and investigate persons of interest to the authorities.The software would be able to analyze that person's interests; opinions, geographical movement and circle of friends, experts say.
"Surveillance is not new in the country, of course, but looking at the requirements, the system would expand the scale and effectiveness of the government's capabilities," Cynthia Wong, a senior Internet researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Mashable. "Considering the role social media and the Internet has played in fostering independent voices and reform in Egypt, this would make it much more difficult to use the Internet as a tool for journalists and human rights activists. You couldn’t go online without fear of unjustified spying or reprisals."
Though it's not likely that the Egyptian government is already using the software, experts believe it's only a matter of time before the government is able to roll it out. Other Arabic-speaking nations would likely seek similar software should the Egyptian system prove successful.
“Once it’s known that ... Egypt is capable of obtaining and running and using such a system, then I guess all the countries in the region would want something similar," Amr Gharbeia, an independent Internet privacy researcher based in Cairo, Egypt, who has previously worked for Amnesty International, told Mashable.
A system with the ability to track Arabic-speakers on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and possibly other social networks such as WhatsApp and Viber would provide yet another way to infringe on the privacy and speech rights of citizens in many Arabic-speaking countries such as Saudi Arabia, where censorship of social media has caused concern in recent years.
Software to monitor different Arabic syntaxes already exists, though experts aren't sure if it has yet been built into a surveillance tool.
Privacy International analysts have gone to surveillance software trade shows to identify companies that might be capable of building Internet surveillance tools such as the ones sought by Egyptian police, says Eva Blum-Dumontet, advocacy officer at Privacy International.
The Egyptian police's proposal request specified that authorities would only consider software which had been presented at a trade show.
The Egyptian scheme is akin to a program called Squeaky Dolphin that the Government Communications Headquarters, a British intelligence agency, demonstrated to the United States' National Security Agency in August, 2012. Squeaky Dolphin can collect information from various social networks and map topics of conversation in various cities as well as monitor a person's online persona — capabilities the Egyptian police are looking for. It's not clear what languages Squeaky Dolphin is capable of understanding.
Blum-Dumontet noted the program would help police monitor anyone who is more outspoken on social media than they are in the real world.
"It exposes people who wouldn't necessarily be [on] the radar of governments," she said.
The potential for more advanced monitoring of social media can be seen as part of a larger crackdown on freedoms in Egypt since the army coup that deposed the democratically-elected President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. About 1,000 Egyptians - mostly Morsi supporters - have been killed in political violence since the coup.
Companies should think twice before providing technology to governments with poor human rights records, experts said.
"The global trade in digital surveillance technologies is virtually unregulated," Wong said. "There are few export controls in place to deal with the kind of mass-monitoring technologies at issue here to prevent companies from selling them to abusive governments."
Blum-Dumontet is concerned that the Egyptian police might soon have possession and use of these surveillance tools.
You can read the full specifications in a translation of the Egyptian government's proposal request, below.
Ministry of Interior Request
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