Saturday, March 27, 2004

How big brother watches the Internet

You are being watchedI recently had a conversation with a system administrator of a major Egyptian ISP, and an official of a certain government body responsible for "policing" the Egyptian information superhighway. The government employee was boasting about the level of control available to him and his colleagues, saying that it was impossible for anyone to do anything illegal on the Internet in Egypt without being caught. He cited specific cases, of credit card fraudsters being arrested in front of their computers, and family homes being raided by police in the middle of the night because dad likes to browse porn in the evenings.

When I voiced my disbelief in a few of his stories, particularly in his claim of the hakooma's ability to identify Internet users connecting via "free number" dial-up and ISDN connections, my ISP sysop friend sided with the official and said that every ISP in Egypt uses access servers with callerID. Furthermore, they are required by law to keep a complete log of every connection, to be presented on request to the authorities. I still wasn't convinced, until he sat me in front of a PC, telnetted into his access server, and got a list of currently active connections, including the phone numbers. I had chills. I decided that I would ask around and try to find out as much as I could about this scary new computer-savvy government.

In a nutshell, from what I've gathered, the hakooma has set up several specialised offices, staffed by dozens of geeks of varying ages equipped with the latest gadgetry, split up into work groups. Each office and each group has their own specialty. The offices are always buzzing with activity, usually there's something going on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are all plugged into the national backbone gateways, and equipped with the specialised hardware and software necessary to continuously filter through every passing network packet. These guys are graduates of American and European universities, they know languages, and they know their way around an Internet connection. What motivates them? I suspect a combination of money, power madness and coercion.

The Mukhabarat's Internet center is probably the most clandestine, serving the presidency by monitoring every scrap of Internet traffic and scouring the web for anything resembling criticism of President Mubarak and his family. This office also is involved in monitoring suspected terrorism-related traffic, keeping a watchful eye on Muslim brotherhood communications and such. The archiving done by this group is huge in scale, literally every reference to Egypt in general and particularly the president and matters relating to the government are saved and filed.

The Interior ministry probably has the biggest and most widespread Internet operation (they have offices distributed around the country), and it is literally attempting to enforce the laws of the land on the Internet. Egyptian homosexuals looking for a bit of online cruising have long learned to be wary of Egyptian vice officers posing as fellow gays, luring unsuspecting men to come to meeting places, then arresting them on debauchery charges. Not only homosexuals, but women have suffered from this kind of entrapment, when they show up at a pre-designated meeting place for a one-on-one with a mysterious online admirer, only to be arrested and accused of being prostitutes. The vice officers also keep a close eye on online porn users, occasionally arresting them, or shutting down Internet cafes that are found to have customers accessing forbidden sites. Other than the questionable activities of the vice police, the interior ministry keeps track of more important issues such as credit card fraud, identity theft, and other crimes.

Details are sketchy about the other Internet monitoring centers set up by the government, but the presidential staff definately have one, and probably the information and defence ministries.

In short, while our government's various instruments of control remain just as primitive and disorganised as they always were, the powers that be take the online activity of us citizens very seriously and have quietly launched a rather sophisticated effort to monitor and control us. I doubt, however, that they will be able to maintain their current efficiency for very long, especially since their ability to retain the services of the talented computer geeks they depend on is questionable.

In any case, watch your backs, and stay anonymous!

Monday, March 22, 2004

Sheikh Ahmed Yasin assassinated

missiles obliterated Yasin and 3 othersSheikh Ahmed Yasin, the founder and leader of Hamas, was assassinated today by IAF helicopter pilots. The thing that really gets to me is that the Hamas leader was on the brink of death anyway. His killing will only serve to stir up more hatred and violence, and will in no way "weaken" the Palestinian resistance as is claimed by the Zionists.

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