November 8, 2022 Egypt’s COP27 App Poses a ‘Credible’ and ‘High Level’ Threat to Protesters, Experts Say

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi speaks during the COP27 climate conference on Nov. 7, 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi speaks during the COP27 climate conference on Nov. 7, 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Egypt’s official COP27 app poses a “credible” threat “at the highest level” to any mobile device that downloaded it, a coalition of cybersecurity and disinformation experts warned early Tuesday morning. 

The app has been marketed by COP officials as a way for delegates and other conference attendees to navigate the United Nation’s two-week global climate summit by providing a calendar of the events, routes for local public transit and other services. According to the Google Play Store, more than 5,000 people have downloaded the app so far.

But the program requires access to a slew of private and potentially compromising information, including a user’s GPS location, photos, emails and even passport number, the Guardian reported Sunday. And cybersecurity experts warned that the data could be used to track protesters and help Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s regime further crackdown on political dissent in Egypt, which has already detained some 65,000 political prisoners. 

On Tuesday, the Climate Action Against Disinformation Coalition, a group of more than 30 disinformation watchdog and environmental organizations from around the world, released its own assessment that reaffirmed those concerns, telling anyone who downloads the app to exercise “extreme caution.”

“There is credible reason to believe the app compromises a device at the highest level,” the coalition wrote in a Tuesday press release. “Having spoken to those involved, this appears to include ‘hot-mic-ing’ a user’s phone—essentially co-opting the microphone, camera and GPS system for surveillance—as well as permissions for screen recording, attempts to access stored mailboxes and ‘root access.’”

It’s unclear if deleting the app or even resetting a phone’s original factory settings will resolve the security threat, the coalition said, adding that anyone who already downloaded the app should be wary of their communications possibly being monitored.

Protests are commonplace at United Nations climate talks and offer alternative channels for activists and other nongovernmental organizations to voice their concerns and demands to decision makers. But Egypt’s military is heavily patrolling this year’s conference, which started Sunday, and the government has limited demonstrations to a designated zone far from Sharm el-Sheikh, the resort city where COP27 is being held.

Egyptian authorities are also being criticized for cracking down on any dissent during COP, a move that many observers say tracks with the country’s long history of repressing political opposition.

Human and civil rights activists, as well as Egyptian citizens critical of their government, say they’ve been subjected to targeted surveillance by government authorities since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2010 and 2011, when thousands of citizens of countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East participated in massive pro-democracy protests—including in Egypt. Many Western onlookers who watched the uprisings on social media believed the protests would result in a new era of free elections in a region historically dominated by dictatorships. But those hopes were mostly dashed by brutal government responses and calculated power grabs.

In Egypt, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi rose to power when he was elected president in 2014, following a messy and violent string of events sparked by the Arab Spring uprisings. They included the 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the nation’s authoritarian president, as well as a 2013 military coup led by al-Sisi, a former Egyptian general, against the then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy. Since his election, however, al-Sisi’s administration has consolidated power in the same manners of the former regimes, often using strong-arm tactics to repress political opposition.

Groups working to advance human, civil and political rights in Egypt have reported “ongoing and extensive” campaigns to monitor their activities. Recent incidents include a widespread phishing campaign that targeted civil-society groups in 2017 and the phone hacking of a prominent political opposition figure last year while he was living outside the country.

Last month, an Egyptian organizer with Human Rights Watch accused al-Sisi of “mass spying on everyone,” after a government official bragged on local television about the installation of surveillance cameras in some 500 taxis operating in Sharm el-Sheikh.

In fact, organizers of the global climate summit have faced widespread criticism from human rights groups in the days leading up to the conference, as more evidence of Egypt’s crackdown on protests emerged. The groups are accusing the government of arbitrarily detaining protesters and setting up security checkpoints in the nation’s capital of Cairo, where authorities force people to hand over their phones to check for evidence of planned protests.

As of last Wednesday, at least 93 people had been arrested in Egypt, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. The human rights nonprofit also said that some protesters were charged with abuse of social media, spreading false news and joining terrorist organizations—which the nonprofit says are baseless charges commonly used by the government against activists to repress political opposition.

In many ways, the treatment of protesters at COP27 contradicts the spirit and goals of the global summit, climate activists have said. While wealthy corporations are being placed in the spotlight this year—including the Biden administration preparing to unveil a plan for private companies to take a leading role in climate action decided at the summit—grassroots organizers have largely found themselves unable to gain access to the conference.

Many activists, especially from poorer nations, say that Egyptian authorities haven’t given them a fair chance to apply for accreditation to attend this year’s summit. And the event’s extreme security measures—which, in addition to the expansive security checkpoints, also include concrete and wire barriers—are making it impossible for many civil-society groups to express their demands in person or hold delegates accountable for the decisions they make during the talks.

The situation could be viewed as particularly problematic in terms of the summit’s optics. As my colleague Zoha Tunio reported today, this year’s COP will, for the first time, officially address the topic of climate reparations—the idea that wealthy nations historically responsible for causing the climate crisis owe a financial debt to developing countries that disproportionately bear its consequences. 

But those official talks about reparations won’t address which countries are responsible for the cost of climate “loss and damage” or who, exactly, should front the bill. And some individuals who offer compelling cases for reparations may not have a seat at the negotiating table at all.

Ugandan youth activist Nyombi Morris, who—like 400 of his neighbors—lost his home in 2008 to devastating flash floods, was met with bitter disappointment this week when he arrived in Egypt only to learn that he wouldn’t be allowed into the summit and he could face arrest and serious criminal charges if he attended any rallies “to ask for compensation for” his mother’s farm and his community.

“I was so happy when they announced that COP would be in Africa. I thought maybe I would get a chance to be at the room where the negotiations are taking place,” the 24-year-old activist told the French television news network France 24. “When they started asking about our locations, where we will be staying, our passports, our names, we were worried.”

“It will not be easy for us to continue with our plan,” he said.

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