CAIRO: Egypt’s interior ministry continues to “spy on internet users, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) said in a statement released earlier this week.
The rights group alleges that internet cafe owners are being forced to report to the police customers who browse “political websites.
According to a March 2009 report by the group Reporters Without Borders, Egypt’s roughly 10 million internet users are amongst the most repressed in the world. Internet users have carved out a space for online dissent unavailable in traditional fora such as the print media. But rights group note that internet activity is coming under increasing scrutiny.
Last year use of free WiFi in the majority of Cairo’s up-market coffee shops was made subject to a scheme whereby customers wishing to go online are obliged to create an account involving the handing over of their name, email address and telephone number.
The scheme, operated by mobile phone company Mobinil and the Link telecommunications company, was widely criticized as a violation of internet users’ privacy.
The card scheme followed on from the random (and extralegal) measures which have been taken by state security investigations officers for years in cyber cafes.
“I opened a cyber cafe in the Haram area in 2001, and at first there were no problems, Mohamed Khaled told Daily News Egypt.
“But then I was summoned to the state security investigations headquarters together with 10 other cyber cafe owners. We were told that there would be serious problems if we did not take our customers’ personal details. We were also given the number of an officer who we should call if a customer went on certain sites and were told that the officer would be there within 15 minutes.
Blogger Wael Abbas, who has posted mobile phone videos showing police torture on his blog Misr Digital, was in 2006 ordered to leave a cyber cafe in Maadi, Cairo after he opened his own website.
“I was showing my friends something on my blog and I guess the owner saw. He asked me for my ID card and I refused, Abbas told Daily News Egypt.
“He said to me, ‘These are regulations, this is state security’. I replied, ‘Tell them that the person trying to go on Wael Abbas’ blog is Wael Abbas; they know me very well.’
After Abbas refused to leave the cyber café, the owner turned off all the computers.
However, personal data collection in cyber cafes remains haphazard. One non-Egyptian Cairo resident said that he has never been asked for an ID by a cyber cafe owner, and has never seen anyone else being asked for ID.
Other, Egyptian, cyber cafe users said that they had on occasion been asked for ID. This, however, did not happen as a matter of routine, they added.
When Daily News Egypt visited three cyber cafes in Cairo we were not requested to hand over our personal IDs in any of them.
Two of the cafes, however, displayed prominent signs reading, “Due to national security reasons we request your cooperation to show your ID or passport to the receptionist and “Security instructions: please leave your name and ID number before using internet [sic].
Both employees in these cafes said that “new security directives had been issued obliging them to collect personal data about their customers.
They disagreed however on when these directives were issued. One employee in downtown Cairo said that they would be enforced “in a month while the employee in Dokki said that the directives had been in existence for “some time but that they had been “tightened a month or two months ago.
The directives may not have been introduced – or tightened – everywhere, nor as part of a uniform strategy.
The downtown employee said that cyber cafe owners are routinely summoned “in groups or on our own to state security investigations headquarters and instructed to record or photocopy customers’ personal ID cards.
When asked what would happen if she refused to take details, the Dokki employee said, “I don’t know, but I need a license from state security to operate.
The downtown employee also confirmed that he is required to hold such a license.
Both employees agreed with the measures.
“I think this is a positive step because it’s not feasible for me to monitor all the computers at the same time, the downtown employee said.
“If someone carries out criminal activity from his computer at home they’ll know how to reach him. These measures just ensure that they can get to people who commit crimes in cyber cafes.
The Dokki employee meanwhile said that “the measures are intended to protect both society and cyber cafes. All countries have these measures. When I ask tourists for their ID they don’t object.
Critics however are not so positive. They point to Egypt’s record of violating the rights of its citizens in the name of fighting terrorism, through the use of exceptional laws which deny individuals basic guarantees of justice.
Rights groups are currently campaigning against the introduction of a new counter-terrorism law which they say will do little more than make permanent the violations facilitated under the Emergency Law which underpins the state of emergency in force in Egypt since 1981.
Notably the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights warned in 2007 that the new legislation – currently still in the drafting process – risks allowing arbitrary and unlawful interference with the right to privacy through the interception of telephone and other communications.
Critics also point to wide-ranging – and unchecked – powers granted to police bodies by exceptional laws allowing them to routinely violate Egyptian citizens’ rights.
A pertinent case is that of blogger Diaa Eddin Gad, who disappeared for three weeks after being kidnapped from his home by state security investigations officers. The 23-year old had posted criticism of Egypt’s policy on Gaza on his blog.
An official from the Telecommunications Ministry told Daily News Egypt that “monitoring of internet cafes is not our area. The Interior Ministry didn’t comment.