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Sun 30 Jun 2013 08:07 AM

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Some Arab gov'ts accused of spying on web users

Activists in Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia speak out over alleged government surveillance

Some Arab gov'ts accused of spying on web users
(Photo for illustrative purposes only)

Internet users in several Arab states have claimed governments are spying on their online activities and at times sending threats in an attempt to avoid Arab Spring-style uprisings.

Activists in Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia spoke out during a recent online freedom conference, detailing their personal experiences and information they have gathered about government surveillance.

The revelations come less than a month after US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which the US was monitoring online users’ activities and storing their data.

Jordanian digital educator Reem Al-Masri said a world map indicating the US’s overseas surveillance activities showed Jordan and Egypt were the third and fourth most targeted countries.

Al-Masri said the Jordanian government had increased its surveillance of online activities in a bid to avoid an uprising similar to those that toppled governments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

“We don’t know where the data’s going,” she said.

“We know we’re speaking to a third party because we’re being surveilled ... so we try not to cross the road lines in order not to be arrested or taken into questioning.

“So we're adapting to the culture of surveillance.”

Zineb Belmkaddem, from Moroccan democracy activist group Mamfakinch, claims she received a direct threat in an anonymous message sent to her Twitter account that contained information that could only have been obtained by monitoring her private communication on the micro blogging website.

“I received these '@ mentions' on Twitter from newly created accounts that were anonymous that would suggest that they knew some of my private information,” Belmkaddem said.

“It was just a very subtle threat. Some of these are very aggressive and they take a toll on some of the activists.”

In Tunisia, Slim Amamou, who was jailed in 2010 for organising a street protest against internet censorship, said although websites were no longer blocked in the North African state the transitional government was monitoring users’ online activities.

Amamou, who quit Tunisia’s interim government following the country’s January 2011 revolution in protest over the temporary return of internet censorship, said opening up the web was a trick for the government to more widely monitor users.

“The Interior Minister told the National Assembly that we are creating a department of surveillance,” he said.

“The government [thinks] it has to protect the state, the security, but we must not forget the most important thing is the citizen.”

Amamou called for internet freedom to be guaranteed in the country’s new constitution, which is being re-written following the revolution.

Fellow Tunisian blogger Sami Ben Gharbia said he believed the government was surveilling him and his colleagues who contributed to a blog called Nawaat.

“We know that they’re tapping our phone, we know that they’re watching our communication channels online and offline,” he said.

But he said it was not clear what information the government was looking for.

“Who is really surveilling Tunisian communication and what are the target groups who are being watched? We don’t know,” Ben Gharbia said.

“We need to try to educate people about choosing all kinds of alternative platforms that try to provide technological solutions for surveillance. It’s a big dream [to] build a new platform that will compete with Google, that will compete with Facebook. I think that’s what the [online freedom] movement in the world should foster.”

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