The Egyptian regime bought advanced spyware from French companies

The French investigative website, Disclose, revealed that the regime of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi had purchased advanced spyware from French companies, with the aim of collecting information from communications networks in Egypt, which contributed to the suppression of peaceful opponents.

The information disclosed came within the series of investigations, the “Egypt Papers,” which the site began publishing a few days ago, based on hundreds of secret French military documents, issued by the offices of the Presidency, the Elysee Palace, the Ministry of the French Armed Forces and the French military intelligence services. With financial support from the United Arab Emirates, three French companies transferred advanced spyware technology to the Egyptian dictatorship and oversaw the operation of a surveillance network aimed at collecting information collectively from Egypt’s communications networks.

It all started in 2013, when Sisi came to power, when the UAE firmly backed Sisi, giving him €150 million cash to provide him with the missing ingredient from his repressive arsenal: digital espionage. According to the leaked documents, Nexa Technologies, with an Emirati nomination, was awarded a €11.4 million contract in 2014 to install online monitoring software called Cerebro, capable of performing comprehensive monitoring of communications via Deep Packet Inspection technology including voice calls, texts, emails, and messages. That same year, Ercom-Suneris won a €15 million contract to install a bugging and geolocation device called the Cortex vortex that could determine the geolocation of anyone by triangulating the location of the base stations their phone is connected to, even without making any calls.

The system contracted with the French arms company Dassault Système to provide a super powerful search programme capable of accessing information to link the data to be collected to the Egyptian national database. Dassault Système is a subsidiary of the Dassault Group, which owns the Rafale aircraft manufacturer, as well as the owner of Falcon aircraft, from which the Egyptian presidency purchased four aircraft in 2018. To ensure the system did its best, the dictatorship spared no equipment, buying brand new data centres, the latest generation of Dell computers, and massive data servers from the US Company DDN. The military placed electronic devices on submarine cables that connect the country to the international internet to monitor them. Nexa Technologies is the subject of a judicial investigation in France, accused of complicity in torture and enforced disappearance in Egypt, for selling the company monitoring software to the regime, which was used to suppress opponents.

A long history of spying on citizens

For many years, the Egyptian authorities have been spying on their citizens without shame, in violation of the right to privacy, freedom of access to the internet and freedom of expression, and a flagrant violation of the Egyptian constitution, which provides for the protection of privacy and confidentiality of communications and correspondence. In a previous report, the Access Now organisation, which is concerned with defending the digital rights of internet users around the world, identified the most important software that the Egyptian authorities have used in recent years to target activists, dissidents, civil society organisations and human rights.

FinFisher spyware: In the aftermath of the January 25 revolution, a group of protesters stormed the headquarters of the state security apparatus. They found documents proving that the Egyptian authorities had purchased FinFisher spyware from the British company Gamma Group. This software enables the Egyptian security services to monitor communications, including phone calls, SMS messages, emails, and chat applications, and record what is happening around computers through the camera associated with them.

ProxySG software: In 2013, the Egyptian authorities imported ProxySG software from the US Company Blue Coat Systems. This software allows the Egyptian authorities to use Deep Packet Inspection technology, which provides tremendous capabilities, including the geolocation of users, the tracking, monitoring and filtering of internet contents in an unguided collective manner, and the hacking of WhatsApp, Viber, Skype and many other programmes. Pegasus software: In 2018, technical reports revealed the Egyptian government’s use of the Pegasus spy software produced by the Israeli company NSO. The software works by defrauding the target person to click on a malicious and custom link, which, once he clicks on it, tries to exploit a series of unknown vulnerabilities to hack the digital security features on the phone and download Pegasus without the user’s knowledge or permission.

As soon as Pegasus is loaded on the phone, it starts calling the control centre (C&C) to receive and execute operator commands, and sends data about the target person, including private information, passwords, contacts, calendar entries, text messages, and direct voice calls from applications such as mobile messaging. The operator can even operate the phone’s camera and microphone to capture and record activity in the surroundings of the phone. All this confirms that the Sisi regime seeks to tighten its grip on power in Egypt, through all legal and illegal means, violating the provisions of the law and the constitution, in line with its dictatorial approach.