Person of Interest, Homeland, Revenge, Spooks, and The Wire. Besides being excellent examples of addictive American TV, they all have one thing in common: the theme of surveillance. From Wikileaks to London Riots, Arab Spring to man-hunt by Saudi Arabia for anti-monarch tweets – social media surveillance has seen its share of limelight in recent years. The entertainment industry has taken more than a little keen interest in taking this idea and exploding it all over our screens. The reality can be grim and less glamorous for people passionate for social change in the Middle East. I have always been interested in the interaction of social media with movements of social change. Having researched the role of twitter in the Egyptian Rising that led to the toppling of Mubarak, it was interesting for me to see how oppressive governments interact with social media.
While social media can be a tool to beat censorship of traditional media as was seen in Egypt, it can also be a powerful tool of surveillance. Wikileaks estimates the global market mass surveillance industry at $5 billion per year. Social media networks can be surprisingly good at locating us and can be quite useful in predicting the behaviour of most people. Think about it. if you have a job then the chances of you being at the same place at a certain time are the same. How many times do we also tell people where we are through Foursquare/Facbook check-ins or tweets? If you do – then your life is an open map to the right mapper because our smartphones know where we are – at all times. Our digital reliance encompasses our life and while the average law-abiding citizen in most countries has nothing to fear from government surveillance.
A recent publication by Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News revealed that Intelligence agencies in the Middle East can already scan, read and change every email in their country for example the Tunisian government famously used this technology to interfere with protests. Governments can intercept and change emails, gather geo-location by tweets and facebook posts, read SMSs and scan cell networks and pinpoint callers with voice recognition and worst, turn on a laptop webcam or cell phone microphone without alerting the owner. CyberWatch 2012 report pointed out how many authorities in the Middle East had enacted internet censorship laws which would allow the hunting, detaining and punishing of citizens who criticized the government. Iran, Syria and Saudia Arabia rank in the top 10 most-censored countries in the world.
The Syrian government has been more successful than the Libyan and Egyptian establishment in surveilling through social media and cracking down on revolts. Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet rights group thinks government may be sponsoring hackers to infiltrate social networks. The Assad regime had banned social media prior to the revolution when they realised that if they opened these networks – they would help them locate revolutionaries. Estimates show that just over 17 percent of Syrians (Reporters Without Borders) use internet which means that it is easier for the government to track them even over several accounts. Their cyber campaign against suspects through emails, Skype and spyware has been aggressive. Assad even called the pro-government hacking group (Syrian Electronic Army(SEA) “a real army in virtual reality” which the Committee to Protect Journalists, referred to as the first time in history a head of state directly complimented a hacking group.
Social Media is an important and sometimes the only avenue for organise with larder number for protesters or even taking part in a national conversation about politics in the Middle East. For instance, 25trends released its Social Media Report for Egypt earlier this month in which they revealed that the top conversation topic in December 2012 were “Morsy”, “Constitutional Referendum”, “Muslim Brotherhood”, and “Revolution”. In Syria, the opposition live-streams videos of violence in the city, uploading videos to YouTube and updating Facebook pages(such as “Syrian Uprising 2011 Information Centre ) with locations of deaths and protests. Therefore, this technology is a big blow to the efforts of revolutionaries and citizen journalists who rely on digital technology for information, to organise and to spread their message. No source will be confidential and no planning of protests can be done online because this technology will allow agents of repressive governments to stay four steps ahead of those who seek to protest.
While risks remain for social media reporters, some organisations are using social media surveillance for good. Harass maps sexual harassment in Egypt through SMS reporting and uses social media to report on it live. So what does the future hold for revolutionaries, concerned citizens and social media users in the Middle East? Are they going to stop using social media? Not really. However, social media is also helping unmask many of the government propagandas which gives hope for a more cautious use of social media. Many protestors and activists now operate with multiple social media accounts so in the face of arrest, intimidation or even kidnapping, certain accounts can be shut down without compromising the network itself. Other tips on remaining anonymous, combating slow internet speeds, deactivating geo-location for social media, using satellite phones and landline internet are being spread on social media and forums to ensure safety of activists.
While the threat of social media surveillance for the average citizen remains ‘a slap on the wrist’, the repercussions can be severe for those who go in too deep with governments bent on squashing even the slightest semblance of dissent.