In Lebanon, the local Big Brother is really watching

As Lebanon’s cyber-activists channelled their outrage through various social media, much of Lebanese society shrugged its shoulders.
Sunday 28/01/2018
Genuine concerns. Lebanese entrepreneurs from different internet startup companies work in the offices of a startup accelerator in Beirut’s Hamra district.     (AFP)
Genuine concerns. Lebanese entrepreneurs from different internet startup companies work in the offices of a startup accelerator in Beirut’s Hamra district. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Despite Lebanon’s many problems and challenges, the country and its people have enjoyed an atmosphere of relative political freedom. This somewhat liberal oasis stood in stark contrast to the Orwellian models across the various autocracies in the region, such as that of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who employed the cloak of Arab nationalism to establish police states to violate people’s rights and privacy.

The multifunctional nature of the Lebanese state and the presence of trailblazing politicians such as Kamal Jumblatt, Raymond Edde and Saeb Salam were sufficient to hold the inquisitiveness of some of the Lebanese security agencies at bay. Salam, the charismatic and centrist former prime minister who sported a carnation boutonniere and a Cuban cigar, stormed an unsanctioned wiretapping room in the Ministry of Communications and destroyed the surveillance equipment.

However, clouds are gathering on that once clear horizon. The American security-research company Lookout and digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation released an electronic forensics report implicating Lebanon’s General Directorate of General Security (GDGS) in the use of malware to spy on thousands of Android operating system users, some of them believed to be political activists and members of the media.

GDGS Director-General Major-General Abbas Ibrahim downplayed the accusations but implicitly admitted his agency was running a surveillance-and-hacking project on the Lebanese public, without divulging whether it had been undertaken with judicial sanction.

Curiously, the public reaction to this dangerous breach of privacy has been meek. As Lebanon’s cyber-activists channelled their outrage through various social media, much of Lebanese society shrugged its shoulders. Lebanese joked about how the GDGS monitoring of their phone calls was only of primary concern to straying marital partners, rather than a gross invasion of everyone’s privacy.

Beyond this adolescent banter, no Lebanese political faction saw fit to tackle the allegations, which, even if partially true, would destroy the so-called myth of Lebanon as an oasis of freedom.

Let’s not be naive. Governments and their security agencies are almost expected to spy on their own people when issues of national security are at stake. Yet for these acts to become legitimate, they must be granted legal sanction by the state. Typically, this is only given when the security agency can prove that the subject whose privacy will be violated is a person of interest or can lead to the apprehension of one.

More importantly, even after such legal authorisations are granted, the relevant agencies need to be under the oversight of government bodies, ones that can be held to account by parliament. In the case of Lebanon, neither the cabinet nor members of parliament have seriously commented on the matter and demanded a legal and technical explanation from the GDGS over alleged transgressions.

Legal concerns aside, at a time when combating terrorism and violent extremism requires excellent grass-roots relations with the community, the Lebanese establishment, in condoning the GDGS’s surveillance of the public, has effectively achieved the opposite end. While the Lebanese public might joke about the affair, such practices will only lead them to lose what little trust they have in their security agencies, which have historically relied heavily on the intel and cooperation of the public to root out terrorist cells.

These same agencies (the Lebanese Army, GDSG, the Internal Security Forces, etc.) spend a small fortune on promoting themselves, repeating the tired axioms of service and protection with which they are entrusted. None of these revelations is likely to reinforce that image.

People might assume that, despite the recent hacking fiasco, Lebanon is kilometres away from the kind of Orwellian police state described in “1984,” possessed of an electronic Big Brother that watches over every thought and action. However, many of the events unfolding in Lebanon, allied with the failure of the ruling elite to stand up for the public they are sworn to protect, are working towards that end. For Lebanon, where once we had the words of the constitution, we are given the ominous words of Orwell: “War is peace, Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

Big Brother isn’t just watching you; he’s reading your most intimate phone texts.

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