Role of anonymity in countries with dictatorship as a mean of resistance against surveillance

In this paper, we will talk about the role of anonymity in countries with dictatorship as a mean of resistance against surveillance. In order to do that, we will analyse the case of Egypt during the protests of the Arab Spring. In fact, the year 2011 was marked by many protests in North Africa and the Middle East region, it was the beginning of the \”Arab Spring\”. Those events had a big domino effect in the region which was mainly dominated by dictators for a long time.

With the protests against the regimes in the Maghreb and the Middle East, we witnessed a high level of violence during this period. In the one hand, the protests occurring against national regimes were extremely intense, but in the other hand, those same regimes used plenty of extremely repressive measures stop as fast as possible the manifestations. However, the events in Egypt were a really interesting example of resistance using new technologies.

First of all, social media platforms were very useful tools for young bloggers, protesters or activists to organise themselves efficiently against the presidency of Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, lots of protesters have been orchestrating the events using the features of Facebook, Twitter or even Youtube. However, their actions could be possibly traced by the Egyptian government who was determined to identify opposant to shut down all kind of protestation in Cairos.

Moreover, it is important to notice that the main messages exchanged online between protesters were not encrypted again surveillance and this was a huge issue regarding online and offline anonymity and the potential consequences. In fact, the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak censored lots of websites, tried to identify the opposant online and prosecuted them offline. Because of this repression, it became absolutely necessary for the activists to hide their personal identity on the Internet. In a nutshell, communicating anonymously for an activist, a blogger or a citizen became the norm in order to avoid being identified and captured by the Egyptian government.

In this paper, firstly we will do a quick review on the events in Egypt regarding the internet shutdown, secondly we will examine the potential consequences a lack of anonymity in Egypt, thirdly, we will review the alternative used by Egyptian activists to empower their online anonymity.

Political context and online services

Before we talk about the role of anonymity during the protests, let us come back to the main key facts that

pushed the Egyptian activists protect their online anonymity. In fact, citizens from Egypt, Libya, or Syria witnessed numbers of Internet shutdowns by their respective governments. First of all, during the beginning of the Arab Spring in Egypt, the most popular websites used by Egyptian citizens started be blocked and it became impossible to have access to it. To begin, on January 25th 2011, the State Security Investigations Service (the highest national internal security authority in Egypt) ordered Twitter to be shut down allover Egypt. Since this date, absolutely no traffic coming from the Twitter servers or going to the servers were sent during the protests. The day after, Facebook was also closed in Egypt. And by the end of January almost the entire Internet of Egypt was completely shut down.

But this shutdown also touched all the SMS and mobile devices system. Many features or app were blocked on the phones and other services such as Whats App were targeted as well by the regime. Moreover, Renesys, one of the big firm that manage the Internet distribution system in Egypt, reported that all routes to Egyptian servers were taken down at the same moment.

Consequently, all Egyptian servers and networks that were absolutely crucial to provide internet access were completely dependent to servers based outside of Egypt. (Those from Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo). To resume economically this unique situation, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) estimated the average cost of the Internet shutdown in Egypt around 90 million €. They took into account the lack of revenues coming from telecommunication or other internet services, which were totally lost.

The consequences of a lack of anonymity

During the Arab spring in Egypt, activists made extensive use of tools such as Facebook to organise themselves, spread their events, diffuse information about the regime, plan manifestation and fight the regime of Hosni Mubarak. But as we said it before, the level of censorship on the internet escalated very quickly. But censorship wasn’t the only concern, the Egyptian government took also many actions to avoid all type of communication between activists and with foreign media looking for informations. With a massive surveillance, a lack of Internet freedom and a fear of becoming identified as an activist, it was the main strategy employed by authorities to stop all the protests. Indeed, the government in Egypt used the law and the force to control what was being posted, but also who posted this kind of content. But they also used technology, for instance, we can cite the American company Narus, a subsidiary of Boeing Corporation. This American company who sold to the Egyptian government a “real-time traffic intelligence” equipment that helped the regime to identify different dissidents. Now owned by Boeing, Narus was founded in 1997 by Security researchers from Israel who created and sold mass surveillance technologies for governments and other corporate clients.

During this tense period, online anonymity was particularly important if you didn’t want to get in trouble for the things that you posted. Posts, photo or videos about events that you had seen or witnessed was dangerous for all type of activists. Indeed, we know that autocratic government are always trying to disable anonymous communication by their citizens and even more for journalists, bloggers or activists. Without a strong online anonymity, this can have a sad impact in real life on the ability for people to organise a political movement against the regime.