State of Surveillance: The Middle East Watched.

“There was, of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment, at any rate, they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live, did live, from habit that became instinct, in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard and except in darkness every movement scrutinized.”
Edward Snowden — I want you to blow the whistle in defense of our liberty

These are the words of George Orwell’s narrator in the iconic “1984” novel, Winston Smith. In this particular excerpt, the narrator is showing us how Big Brother has essentially crafted an entity that is almost godlike in its ability to watch, observe, and critique: being everywhere and nowhere all at once. All while the public was aware it could be monitored at any given moment.

We, as members of this society, are molded by the visual currency that surrounds our sight and mind, whether it was through gazing outwards or the other way around, where we would be the ones being looked upon. There is something strange about the way ‘being looked at’ incrementally defines our behavior, how people tend to not mind doing certain things (read, dark nightclubs) knowing they’re not being watched, whereas they would not do the same exact act if they had the notion of being looked at. Several texts in literature, religion and social sciences prove that acts of mass-surveillance are a powerful tool in channeling the social dynamics of communities, specifically how they create conformity and obedience towards the ruling body: public shaming, excommunication and fear play a major role in shaping the way societies comply with a set of ‘rules’ and mandates of societal orthodoxy, and therefore stripping away any form of dignity and agency.

“God is always watching, Big Brother is always watching.”

In 18th century Europe, the industrial revolution restructured the way factories and complexes were being built, as they were becoming more centralized, bigger in size, and therefore much more difficult to control. English philosopher Jeremy Bentham has set out to create an architectural design that allows for the monitoring of individual members, which later became the ‘norm’ for all institutions aiming to control human behavior (schools, hospitals, mental asylums, and prisons).

Bentham came up with what he called the panopticon, which is basically a standing tower allowing for the observance of those surrounding it, without them actually knowing when or how they’re being observed. In this way, the panopticon renders all those in sight hyper-visible, making them incarcerated by the unverifiable disciplinary power of its mere existence. It is, as French philosopher Michel Foucault says, the ‘epitome of power in its ideal form.’

State surveillance is nothing new for anyone following the news recently, specifically with Edward Snowden’s leaks on how the US government and its allies have turned the Internet, once thought to represent an open arena of free speech, into a large-scale transnational surveillance operation, uninhibited by any form of law, ethics or human rights conventions.

Though, what is even more problematic than the fact that state nations are breaching their own citizens’ private lives, is the fact that most people have fallen into the trap of thinking that by giving away their right of privacy and freedom of expression, they are contributing to the common good. As contemporary history shows, people are willing to give away their liberty and freedoms for the notion of security.

Something which Orwell failed to anticipate is that now we are inviting Big Brother into our houses, rather than it being imposed upon us. With every click, like, page view, we are entangling ourselves around a network of meta-data that governments around the world would have access to, and therefore create an agar to monitor our every online footstep.

The public needs to realize that rights are not a ‘necessity’ that one could giveaway, specifically what world-known whistle blower Edward Snowden has incessantly spoken about: “Nobody needs to justify why they ‘need’ a right: the burden of justification falls on the one seeking to infringe upon the right…Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.” People believe that since they have nothing to hide, they wouldn’t mind governments snooping on their online activity, yet at the same time they would enable 2-step verification passwords to their emails, ensure that they lock their computers when unattended, and even go through the effort of enabling fingerprint access to all devices.

Privacy is an important thing for us humans, even though we sometimes tend to believe the opposite. What we choose to talk about, post online, or comment on goes through a series of selective self-monitoring process (should your boss be seeing your killing meme skills right now?); we all have something to hide, something we choose to tell our best friend and not our partner, something we would rather keep to ourselves. After all, we are social animals, with tendency to keep secrets.

Privacy is not a ‘first world’ problem, rather it is a fundamental issue facing those who live under repressive authoritarian regimes. Privacy matters, free society or not.

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog — not.

Governments around the world have been legitimizing their online surveillance efforts for ‘security purposes’, and specifically after 9/11 where the US and its allies initiated a global online surveillance effort and intelligence sharing programs that would essentially have no limits in terms of who, what, or where gets to be monitored. Sadly, there is no such thing as a ‘terrorist’ mobile or laptop exclusively used for malicious purposes, enabling governments to hide behind national security as a reason to justify their means. In short, I believe that these governments have legitimized a solution to a problem they created in the first place, and the fact that a terrorist organization like ISIS was quite effective in evading all surveillance efforts and creating an online media empire in such sophistication, comes to show that it is not quite as effective as it is thought to be.

In the Middle East, the surge in online surveillance had became more obvious with the 2011 Arab uprisings, where regional governments have completely shifted their attitude from complete denial towards ‘only monitoring the bad people.’ According to these countries’ governments, ‘bad people’ were human rights activists, journalists, or any dissidents deemed to pose any threat to national security. As a matter of fact,monitoring technologies were not only utilized in places where public up rises have occurred, but also in countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Lebanon. This is not to say that the revolution justifies any government’s decision into monitoring its own citizens, but the fact that Arab governments are embracing such high-tech methods and implementing them with such efficiency is alarming — especially in places where freedom of expression, liberty, and democracy are considered a novelty. Commercial spyware is leveling the field among countries in cyber-warfare, let it be oil-rich countries from the GCC, Nigeria, or Germany.

One in three internet users worries about governments checking what they do online, a slight decline from 2013 and 2015.

With absence of any international standard for regulation, regimes around the world are using these technologies to override encrypted communications, monitor citizens at home or abroad, and take actions into silencing dissidents. And for that reason, many companies and startups around the world are catering specifically to these governments’ needs, those who can’t afford hiring in-house developers to build a surveillance infrastructure from within the country itself like the UAE and KSA. Indeed, Citizen Lab’s research along with Snowden’s leaks has led the European Union to add a “cyber-weapons” category to the list of weapons with dual uses.

Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist in the United Arab Emirates, found out he was under government surveillance a year after he called for universal suffrage. — Image via New York Times

The New York Times has recently reported on Ahmed Mansoor’s, a human rights activist in the UAE, ordeal with the Emirati government, after being arrested then released on charges of insulting Emirate rulers. A year after his release, Mr. Mansoor found out he was being monitored by the the government with spyware installed on all his digital devices, tracking all his moves and actions.

Mr. Mansoor isn’t the only victim of such monitoring breaches, as Gulf states, and especially the UAE, have recently been exposed to deal with several cybersecurity companies across the world like the NSO Group and Cellebrite in Israel to Finfisher in Germany and Hacking Team in Italy, who sell digital spy tools to governments(countries tend to not buy all their services from one provider, so as to not risk exposure, as well as the fact that software are optimized for different purposes). The UAE has been upping its efforts in cybersecurity and surveillance, and is quite frightening what these guys are planning:

  • Hiring top-notch ‘spies’ to develop from within the country with state-contractor Darkmatter
  • Installing ‘hardware probes’ all over the country, in a program called ‘Falcon Eye’ which was used against Mr. Mansoor — enabling them to monitor and control every single connected device.
  • Social engineering methods, where victims would receive emails and social media requests from people who would appear as acquaintances.

Surveillance is the new censorship

On the other side of the Arab world, Morocco, pro-democracy journalists and human rights activists were not spared from online surveillance, only this time it was by the Moroccan government: Hacking Team’s biggest customer, only ahead of the UAE who comes in second place.

Ad for Hacking Team’s product for remote control system ‘Da Vinci’

Mamfakinch, Moroccan dialect for ‘we won’t give up’, is an online platform for independent journalists from across the country to express freely and promote progressive changes in the country’s media, which is still being tightly held by the repressive regime. Mamfakinch came as a result of the media’s disregard for the popular February 20 Movement initiated around the same time the ‘Arab Spring’ was happening on the other side of the African continent. The platform has positioned itself among journalists and readers as an area of free speech, where they could publish investigations and sensitive material in a very secure manner, maintaining the anonymity of the journalist or writer. Only, later, to be attacked by a ‘Word’ document.

The Moroccan government, seeing the website’s popularity, has used a €200,000 spyware developed by the Italian firm Hacking Team, which ‘enables its user to gain access to infected computers from a distance, and thus to every document on the hard drive as well. It is also possible to follow in real time everything happening on screen and to register every keystroke, including passwords. It can even switch on the webcam to take pictures and video.’ On July 13th 2012, the editors of Mamfakinch received an email containing an empty Word document entitled ‘Scandal’, once opened it would install a spyware that would essentially compromise the privacy of the infected device’s owner, and therefore everybody (other journalists) they deal with. Mamfakinch was doomed to end as it was built around the idea of private communication and trust for anonymity. It eventually stopped publishing altogether in 2014, as journalists started making excuses not to work with them anymore. Governments don’t need to go through the effort of censoring what you publish, they can monitor you as you create it.

Surveillance and Politics

“The citizen’s place of residence is inviolable. No one may enter it except in the circumstances and manners prescribed by Law.” — Article 14 of the Lebanese Constitution.

In Lebanon, most debates about surveillance revolve around politics, and whether or not the telecom data of the Lebanese population should be handed over completely to the ‘Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)’ which was commissioned to investigate the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri back in 2005. Lebanon’s geopolitical scene differs than others in the region, especially with Israel on its southern borders as well as Hezbollah’s privately-owned communications network (a non-state actors having access to IMSI catchers, enabling them to eavesdrop on all mobile communications happening on a mobile network). In 2014, the Lebanese political scene was divided into the binary of 8-March (axis of resistance coalition) and 14-March (pro-US coalition), and the trope the debate took was completely politicized, without paying any attention to the right to privacy rights. As a matter of fact, the right of privacy is still not fully protected in Lebanon, rather it has certain legal frameworks and guidelines but not an actual infrastructure that organizes the process of surveillance and data gathering. According to a report by Privacy International, ‘ Lebanon does not have a law regulating the protection of personal data. Privacy is regulated by other provisions as outlined above, including the Law 99/140 related to the protection of secrecy of communications carried out by all means of communication, the law 03/09/1956 on banking secrecy, and the penal code under Article 579, 580 and 581 relating to the violation of secrets.’

In January 2013, the Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto published a research brief showing the Lebanon is using Blue Coat PacketShaper installations (provided by the US, and promotes itself as a ‘bandwidth moderator’). PacketShaper is a technology that allows for the surveillance and monitoring of users’ interactions on various applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Google Mail, and Skype. While it is true that these technologies are made with the aim to optimize bandwidth management in a way to distribute data in an efficient and useful manner, they also are capable of filtering content, censoring it, and surveilling on users (data packets).

It wasn’t until 2010 that Lebanese authorities have starting the process of Internet filtering and monitoring, where they started detaining many citizens for criticizing the government and army (let alone the president). Lebanon does not have a history of Internet filtering, yet the government has recently drafted online content regulations concerning public morals.

Surveillance cameras over a road near Jisr el Wati in Beirut. Source: SMEX.

To make things even worse, the municipality of Beirut has finalized the ‘deal’ with Guardia systems to install 1850 CCTV cameras around the city for the price of $36M ($19,500 per camera)in a clear and determined breach of privacy of the public.

Regardless of your position to the issue at hand, one has to acknowledge the fact that today, the Lebanese and their right to privacy has been completely overshadowed by ‘security’ purposes that have yet to prove themselves worthy of breaching the constitution for.

A system of mass surveillance restricts our freedom in ways we have yet to experience. We as academics, journalists, readers, lovers, human rights advocates, writers, speakers, as citizens have the duty to fight back and challenge that oppressive ‘power of the panopticon’ because, yes, we do have something to ‘worry about’. It is for us to resist cultural, political, societal orthodoxy and modes of compliance to the system, for society’s true freedom is not measured by those who ‘follow the rules they created’ but by looking at how those who fight back are treated.