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COP27 attendee looks at his smart phone

Participants rest in common outdoor scape as the COP27 climate summit opened at the Sharm El-Sheikh International Convention Center in Egypt on November 6, 2022. (Photo: Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Egypt Accused of Using 'Cartoon Super-Villain of an App' to Spy on COP27 Attendees

"It's sad but expected from Egypt," said one human rights campaigner.

Jon Queally

Climate campaigners and digital privacy advocates expressed alarm Sunday over revelations that the official app being used at the COP27 could be exploited by the Egyptian government hosting the global climate summit to spy on those using it, including domestic dissidents and outside critics of the regime's brutal human rights record.

As the Guardian reports:

The official COP27 app, which has already been downloaded more than 5,000 times, requires sweeping permissions from users before it installs, including the ability for Egypt's ministry of communications and information technology to view emails, scour photos and determine users' locations, according to an expert who analyzed it for the Guardian.

This data could be used by Abdel Fatah al-Sisi's regime to further crack down on dissent in a country that already holds about 65,000 political prisoners. Egypt has conducted a series of mass arrests of people accused of being protesters in the lead-up to COP27 and sought to vet and isolate any activists near the talks, which will see governments attempting to hammer out an agreement over dealing with the climate crisis.

Gennie Gebhart, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's advocacy director, told the Guardian the platform "is a cartoon super-villain of an app."

According to Gebhart, the "biggest red flag is the number of permissions required, which is unnecessary for the operation of the app and suggests they are trying to surveil attendees. No reasonable person will want to consent to being surveilled by a nation state, or having their emails read by them, but often people click these permissions without thinking much."

Canadian author and climate activist Naomi Klein tweeted Sunday that, "If you are at #COP27 and have downloaded the official app, you need to assume your phone has been compromised and deleting the app won't close the backdoor."

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, both of which have criticized Egypt's human rights record leading up to COP27, said their experts who examined the app came up with similar finds to that of EFF.

“It can be used for surveillance,” Hussein Baoumi of Amnesty told the Guardian, and explained that the permission settings gave access to the user's camera, microphone, and location data.

Baoumi said the app "is really part of the wider surveillance structure in Egypt," which should not be surprising.

"This is coming from a country doing mass surveillance unapologetically on its own population," he said. "It makes sense that of course the Egyptian government's app can be used for surveillance, to collect data and use it for purposes unconnected to Cop27. It's sad but expected from Egypt."

On Sunday, Amnesty condemned the Egyptian for arrested hundreds of people in the weeks leading up to COP27 based on concerns these individuals were planning or calling for demonstrations to take place during the summit.

“The arrest of hundreds of people merely because they were suspected of supporting the call for peaceful protests raises serious concerns over how the authorities will respond to people wishing to protest during COP27—an essential feature of any UN climate conference," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa research and advocacy director.

Luther said world leaders attending the summit "must not be fooled by Egypt's PR campaign. Away from the dazzling resort hotels thousands of individuals including human rights defenders, journalists, peaceful protesters and members of the political opposition continue to be detained unjustly. They must urge President Abdelfattah al-Sisi to release all those arbitrarily held for exercising their human rights. As a matter of urgency, this should include imprisoned activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, who today escalated his hunger strike to stop drinking water.”

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