COP27: Egypt Blocks Human Rights and Press Sites Amid Suspicion of Monitoring Attendees

people waiting in a line
La Nacion
Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt

COP27: Egypt Blocks Human Rights and Press Sites Amid Suspicion of Monitoring Attendees

Online human rights sites and press pages were blocked on Tuesday (November 8) at the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2022 (COP27) venue. Foreign press at the event have been warned not to install the official application of the event, or accept free cell phone SIM cards.

La Nación confirmed that the Human Rights Watch (HRW) page, the Qatari news site Al JazeeraMada Masr (Egypt's only independent press) and others were inaccessible from the COP27 Wi-Fi network and cell phone mobile data in Sharm El Sheikh.

According to The Guardian, at least 700 online sites suffered the same fate, including independent media websites from other countries and civil society organizations.

CitizenLab, a Canadian website that advocates for the freedom and security of internet users, documented in an investigation a few years ago, revealing that the Canadian company Sandvine had provided deep packet inspection technology that allows Egyptian authorities to block websites at will.

HRW's webpage was barred after it was reported that the official COP27 mobile app collects personal information and requests access to the user's phone's camera, microphone and location service. HRW is a non-governmental organization dedicated to the investigation, defense and promotion of human rights.

All of those provisions are part of the rules that the Egyptian hosts of COP27 have made in their Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions, which describes how they plan to use the data of those who install the app.

"By accepting this agreement, you confirm that you have read, understood and agree to its contents. By accepting, you allow the app to be able to use the information you have shared with us through your device settings, such as GPS location, camera access, photos and WiFi," it reads. "Our app reserves the right to access customer accounts for technical and administrative purposes and for security reasons."

Foreign press and conference attendees have also been warned by official delegations about the privacy and data handling policy linked to cellular SIM cards given away at the event by Vodafone; a UK cell phone provider who became COP27's main telecommunications partner in August 2022. The free prepaid cards are accompanied by data packages with several gigabytes for consumption.

The convenience of free SIM cards to facilitate mobile communication led to huge lines at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport and at Vodafone booths at the COP27 venue.

The SIM card rules of use dictate that the user accepts that the provider and the host authorities have direct access to calls, text messages and contact information of the user.

This Tuesday, 8 November at 6:30 p.m. in Egypt, (10:30 a.m. in Costa Rica), HRW and Amnesty International held a panel at the German pavilion at COP27. Sanaa Seif, an Egyptian human rights activist and sister of Alaa Abdel Fatah, Egypt's most notorious political prisoner, was invited.

At the beginning of April, Abdel Fatah would only consume a cup of tea and a spoonful of honey a day in protest against prison conditions. On 1 November, he stopped eating altogether. On 6 November, as COP27 began, he stopped drinking water. 

His sister Sanaa Seif was actively involved in the Egyptian Arab Spring in 2011. She was arrested in 2014 but was granted a presidential pardon, along with 100 others, in September 2015. However, she was re-arrested in June 2020 and released again on 23 December 2021 at the end of her sentence.

This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security. It was first published in Spanish by La Nación on 8 November 2022 and has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Lines at several Vodafone booths at COP27 have been constant since Sunday when the conference kicked off / Credit: Juan Fernando Lara Salas.

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