Fears are growing that the Cop27 app could be used by Egypt to monitor regime critics | Cop27

There are growing fears of surveillance by delegates to the Cop27 climate talks in Egypt, with cybersecurity experts warning that the official app for the talks requires access to a user’s location, photos and even email when downloading it.

The revelation, as more than 25,000 heads of state, diplomats, negotiators, journalists and activists from around the world gather at the climate summit which begins Sunday in Sharm el-Sheikh, has raised fears that Egypt’s authoritarian regime could use an official platform of a United Nations event to track and harass participants and critical national voices.

The official Cop27 The app, which has already been downloaded more than 5,000 times, requires extensive permissions from users before installation, including the ability for the Egyptian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to view e- emails, browse photos and determine the location of users, according to an expert who analyzed for the Guardian.

These data could be used by the regime of Abdel Fatah el-Sissi to further suppress dissent in a country that holds approximately 65,000 political prisoners. Egypt has held a series of mass rallies arrests of people accused of being protesters in the run-up to Cop27 and have sought to control and isolate any activists close to the talks, which will see governments attempt to hammer out a deal on dealing with the climate crisis.

“This is a super-villain cartoon of an app,” said Gennie Gebhart, advocacy director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The biggest red flag is the number of permissions required, which is unnecessary for the operation of the app and suggests that they are trying to monitor participants.

“No reasonable person would want to consent to being watched by a nation-state or having their emails read, but often people click on these permissions without much thought.”

She added: “I can’t think of a single good reason why they need these permissions. The question of how this information will be used remains open – it raises many frightening possibilities. This may well have a silencing effect as people censor themselves when they realize they are being watched in this way. This can have a paralyzing effect. »

Amnesty International’s Hussein Baoumi told the Guardian that technicians working for the rights organization reviewed the app and flagged a number of concerns ahead of Cop27. The app was able to access users’ camera, microphone, Bluetooth, and location data, as well as pair two different apps.

“It can be used for surveillance,” he said.

Baoumi added: “The problems they found were mainly the requested permissions. If granted, it allows the app to be used for surveillance against you. It collects data and sends it to two servers, including one in Egypt. The authorities do not say what they do with this data, and they can use this app for mass data collection from everyone who uses it. »

Amr Magdi of Human Rights Watch said his organization had also assessed the app and found that it “opened doors for misuse”.

Magdi added that conferences like Cop27 are “a great opportunity from a security point of view for information gathering”, including for some activists “that they want to know more about”.

Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the Egyptian President. Photo: Christian Mang/Reuters

Human rights activists in Egypt raised concerns about the Cop27 app almost immediately after it became available.

“You can now download the official version #Cop27 mobile application, but you must provide your full name, email address, mobile phone number, nationality and passport number. You also need to enable location tracking. And then the first thing you see is this, ” tweeted Hossam Baghat, the head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, logs into an app screen showing the face of the Egyptian president.

He then tweeted a screenshot of the app’s terms and conditions, who said : “Our app reserves the right to access customer accounts for technical and administrative purposes and for security reasons.”

Digital surveillance of Cop27 attendees adds to a highly developed infrastructure for lagging communications surveillance of Egyptian citizens, prompted in large part by fears among Egyptian officials about the power of digital communications and their relationship to the popular uprising of 2011. This includes deep packet inspection technology provided by an American company in 2013, allowing authorities to monitor and all web traffic passing through a network. The Egyptian government has also block online access on more than 500 websites, including the country’s only independent media, Mada Masr, using technology provided by the Canadian company Sandvine.

Monitoring by the main telephone operators such as Vodafone allows Egyptian authorities direct access to all users’ phone calls, text messages and information. A Cop27 attendee said Vodafone is handing out free SIM cards to conference attendees upon arrival at Sharm el-Sheikh airport.

“The Cop27 app is really part of the larger surveillance structure in Egypt,” Baomi said. “This app comes from a country that shamelessly monitors its own population. It makes sense that, of course, the Egyptian government’s app could be used for surveillance, to collect data and use it for purposes unrelated to COP 27. It’s sad but expected from Egypt.

Egyptian human rights activists and civil society members critical of the government have been under targeted surveillance by Egyptian authorities for years, raising concerns about the risks for high-level activists participating in COP27. The Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights and Citizen Lab identified an “ongoing and extensive phishing campaign against Egyptian civil society”, in 2017 targeting organizations working on human rights, political freedoms and gender issues as well as individual targets such as lawyers, journalists and activists. Four years later, Citizen Lab has identified a new targeted hacking attempt against the phone of a former Egyptian opposition leader based abroad.

South Sinai Governor Khaled Fouda also recently bragged to a national cable channel about the level of Cop27 surveillance, including cameras in the backs of taxis that transmit images to a “monitoring local security.

“Sisi’s idea of ​​’security’ is to spy on everyone en masse,” said Magdi tweeted in response.

The Cop Presidency and the Egyptian Foreign Ministry have been approached for comment.

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