Egypt’s authoritarian president controls his own shadowy division of the nation’s intelligence apparatus, a previously unknown agency called the Technical Research Department. It operates so completely without oversight that its exact purpose is a mystery and its director is known only through leaked emails as “Dr. Layla.”
Yet the equipment it uses, purchased from surveillance technology companies in Italy, Germany and Finland, suggests the Technical Research Division, or TRD, conducts both mass surveillance and targeted operations, including the ability to hack into the webcams of personal computers. The agency’s accountability structure, in which it is beholden only to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, indicates TRD may be the ex-general’s personal spy unit.
The revelations are the result of a yearlong investigation by London-based Privacy International, an NGO that monitors government surveillance globally. The European companies named in the report told Privacy International they operate within the law.
For example, Hacking Team, a firm based in Milan, Italy, sold malware capable of overtaking personal computers to Egypt; those exports were explicitly approved by the Italian government, a company representative wrote.
Italian export authorities need to get their act together
“I think that underlines that there’s a gaping hole in the export regulations that would allow this to happen,” Privacy International researcher Edin Omanovic told il manifesto. As one member of European Parliament told us: “Especially the Italian export authorities need to get their act together.”
Calls for a ban
Since the July 2013 coup that toppled Egypt’s first democratically elected government, the new military rulers have unleashed a reign of terror on Islamists, suspected dissidents, activists and journalists. El-Sisi presided over the massacre of over 1,000 protesters at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in 2013 and has systematically detained, tortured and disappeared perceived opponents, according to multiple human rights organizations.
By July 2014, the human rights situation in Egypt had deteriorated so dramatically that the European Parliament was beginning to treat its North African ally as a pariah state. That month, members passed a resolution calling for a ban on the sale of spy technology to Egypt, reasoning there was no way to know whether the government would use it to suppress its own citizens.
In fact, the European Union already had a system in place to prevent surveillance technology from falling into the wrong hands. The Wassenaar Arrangement gives European export authorities the responsibility to assess buyers of military equipment, including surveillance technology.
Despite the concerns of European Parliament, the Italian government apparently believed TRD — an intelligence unit whose purpose is publicly unknown and operates with effective impunity — was an appropriate destination for powerful eavesdropping gear.
Privacy International learned very little about TRD. Its existence is confirmed through leaked company emails and contracts and through Privacy International’s own anonymous sources. Even the gender of its director is in question: One email referred to him as “Dear sir”; another identifies her as Layla.
But what is known about TRD is that it has a strong appetite for the most sophisticated surveillance technology available. An “industry source” told Privacy International: “If you start a business selling the sort of technologies they are interested in, you don’t need to approach them. They will investigate you and eventually approach you.” According to another source, TRD’s spending budget is the largest among Egypt’s intelligence agencies.
TRD’s spending budget is the largest among Egypt’s intelligence agencies
TRD existed prior to the Arab Spring of 2011. In or prior to that year, a former joint venture of Nokia (Finland) and Siemens (Germany), known as Nokia Siemens Networks, sold mass surveillance equipment to TRD that would allow it to intercept and monitor mobile and landline phone communications. (Nokia did not respond to a request for comment; it told Privacy International it has divested its monitoring business and provides interception technology in accordance with the law.)
Hacking Team, however, has continued its relationship with TRD as recently as March 2015, according to emails posted on Wikileaks. The firm’s software, called Remote Control System, is also more intrusive. Those with access to it can penetrate individual computers and smartphones and operate them remotely, accessing files and even turning on the computers’ microphones and webcams. Hacking Team’s system has been used in the past to spy on journalists.
Hacking Team did not respond to questions from il manifesto, but it has said it “goes to great lengths” not to sell its products to “repressive regimes.” In a statement to Privacy International, the company indicated it does not consider Egypt a repressive regime. “Egypt is an ally of the West including the U.S.,” it wrote, adding, “The sale of software for lawful surveillance is important for the protection of all of us.”
’Agencies act with impunity’
Exactly what is lawful in today’s Egypt is not quite clear, and what is lawful is not necessarily in line with basic human rights standards.
The government has enacted a raft of laws that give the state broad authority to suppress dissidents. There is virtually no freedom of speech. And as the the death of Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni illustrates, the government is unable or unwilling to investigate crimes in which its own security apparatus is suspected — despite the powerful intelligence tools at its disposal.
The Privacy International report especially calls into question the judgment of European export authorities. “Obviously the recent record of Egyptian security services, in general and including [the Regeni] incident, underlines the very serious question of exports to the security services in Egypt,” Omanovic said. “Under E.U. regulations, [export authorities] should have carried out a human rights due diligence test, and it’s very worrying if they haven’t.”
“European member states should suspend all military and surveillance export licenses to all end users in Egypt until an independent investigation into this case has been concluded”
The Dutch Member of the European Parliament Marietje Schaake, who sits on the International Trade Committee and has followed the Privacy International investigation, said the fact that Italian officials approved Hacking Team’s exports is troubling.
“This case makes clear that we cannot wait any longer to include human rights criteria in the update of the E.U.’s export control regime,” she told il manifesto in a statement. “European member states should suspend all military and surveillance export licenses to all end users in Egypt until an independent investigation into this case has been concluded. Allowing sales of surveillance systems to countries in which security agencies act with impunity should never be legal.”
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