Government Surveillance at 2022 U.N. Climate Conference

Yves here. Yes, it is terrible that the organizers of COP27 chose to hold it at a plush resort (denial of climate realities) and even more so when the official conference app allows the host government, Egypt, to snoop on users’ e-mails, photos, and of course location. Neuburger points out that the Egyptian government could not have done this without UN knowledge and therefore at least tacit approval.

But I also hate to say it, anyone who is a serious activist ought to assume all spying all the time, particularly of location data. I would have my main phone be a dumbphone. I would use a burner phone for any conference business at a conference. And I would also keep it often in a Faraday bag. Yes, someone might have to wait 5 or 10 or even 20 minutes to get a response to an e-mail, call, or text. But a conference is supposed to be about making face-to-face contacts. Effectively taking the device off line will encourage a user to focus on what is happening in the room, not on his device. Yes, this won’t fully protect you. But it will make it much harder to put together your story at and outside the conference.

Perhaps other readers have other or better security suggestions for those more phone-dependent than I am. I get so many e-mails a day that the only way to manage them is on a large screen, and I’m mainly at a desk, so it’s easy for me to not/barely use a phone.

By Thomas Neuburger. Originally published at God’s Spies

There’s so much to write about these days. I’d considered doing a comment on the upcoming Term of the U.S. Supreme Court, including this:

The nightmarish Supreme Court case that could gut Medicaid

I still might; stay tuned. But the following takes the cake. As usual these days, this is two stories wrapped into one.Upgrade to paid

The Official COP27 App Is a Surveillance Tool

It’s big news in a small world that COP27 is being held this week in the lovely Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Sharm el-Sheikh, where U.N. climate luminaries contemplate helping the victims of the rich world’s climate violence

For those not following the UN climate conferences — and let’s face it, most people aren’t — COP27 is the 27th Conference of the Parties, those nations participating in the United Nations effort to stop global warming. These conferences happen every year, the rhetoric gets more and more desperate, and inaction piles on inaction like stones at a rock slide.

Still, they meet. There’s something special about this year’s event, though. The official conference app is spyware.

From the Guardian:

Fears mount that Cop27 app could be used by Egypt to surveil regime’s critics

Cybersecurity experts warn that official Cop27 climate app requires access to a user’s location, photos and even emails

There are mounting fears over the surveillance of delegates at the Cop27climate talks in Egypt, with cybersecurity experts warning that the official app for the talks requires access to a user’s location, photos and even emails upon downloading it.

The revelation, as more than 25,000 heads of state, diplomats, negotiators, journalists and activists from around the world gather at the climate summit that starts in Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday, has raised concerns that Egypt’s authoritarian regime will be able to use an official platform for a United Nations event to track and harass attendees and critical domestic voices.

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 analysed it for the Guardian.

That part’s bad enough: That an official U.N.-sanctioned platform could be designed for surveillance is terrible. The big news in the Guardian story — at least in the Guardian editor’s mind — is that the evil Egyptian dictator is the beneficiary.

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.

Focusing on the Wrong Perp?

But why focus on just the Egyptian government? Note this:

[Amr] Magdi [of Human Rights Watch] said … that conferences like Cop27 are “an excellent chance from a security perspective for information gathering,” including for certain activists “they want to know more about”. [emphasis added]

Who’s “they”? Just the Egyptian government? Or governments everywhere? Consider these questions:

  1. Who developed the app? (The article doesn’t say, though the app storesays Egypt.)
  2. Who at the U.N. approved the app? (Silence from the article.)
  3. If the U.N. developed the app, why put the surveillance capability in it?
  4. If the Egyptians developed it, why did the U.N. accept it as “official,” the one and only?

The last question is crucial. Also damning.

At best, the U.N. let Egypt develop the app and rubber-stamped the result without considering misuse. I consider this option unlikely.

At less-than-best, the U.N. let Egypt develop the app, knew how it would be abused, and said yes anyway as part of a deal that let them use lovely Sharm el-Sheik as its 2022 venue. Egypt gets its spyware; the U.N. gets to host its climate-concerned luminaries in style (see image above).

And at the very worst, spying on delegates, attendees and protesters at climate events has been normalized, regardless of where they’re held, and the U.N. is apparently on board with that.

After all, the climate is getting worse by the year, noticeably enough that even the worst deniers have shifted to climate delay instead. Belief in the reality of global warming is near universal, even if willingness to address it still is not.

Can you imagine, even in the Land of the Free, that the U.S. government wouldn’t keep a very close eye on what it officially calls “eco-terrorists” if a major conference like this were held in its borders? Police regularly brutalize pipeline protesters already. U.S. surveillance of climate protesters is happening today.

If a COP28 were hosted in Midtown Manhattan, don’t you think every suspect cell phone in a 50-mile radius would be tracked till after the conference — and every cell phone near the event, regardless of its owner, watched minute by minute? As the potential for angry reaction to climate delay grows greater and greater, Egypt may not be unique in the way it responds.

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  1. digi_owl

    I suspect the part of Manhattan surrounding the UN HQ is likely to be some of the most surveilled piece of land out there already.

  2. timbers

    The wealthy are much larger carbon consumers than others. Taxing them heavily would benefti the environment. Massachusetts passed a referendum to change the law to impose a 4% additional income tax on those making more than $1 million. Revenue to be used in broadly defined education and transportation. Believe the vote was about 52% in favor. A baby step, and it shows how narrow support for having the wealthy pay more. Good news it passed, bad news the narrow margin in so called “deep blue” state. Also I expect there are a number of ways the legislature can kill this but don’t know the state of play on that.

  3. The Rev Kev

    The Egyptians are spying on the attendees at COP27? And using the official app to do so? The Egyptians should take a number. Realistically speaking, all the governments would have their intelligence services watching everybody there and what they are doing. And you would have all manner of corporations spying on the attendees using private spook services. And then there are all the fossil fuel industry delegates there watching everything going on to protect their investments. Sure, you could use burner mobiles and disposable tablets to work on and I can think of another wrinkle that would really help security of some delegates. But at the end of the day, you would have people working for environmental organizations that would be doing spying as well to report back to their true owners. What sort of people? The sort of people mentioned in that film “Planet of the Humans.” Some situations, there is no security.

  4. Cetra Ess

    In Canada the petro industry routinely and overtly (or not so surreptitiously) uses private security to surveil and intimidate environmental protesters and groups. Additionally, the same engage with and provide surveillance reports to local and provincial police (and generously donate equipment to police forces) while also providing reports to CSIS and lobbying to persuade the government label anti-petroleum activists terrorists. The oil industry has permanent seats at interagency “fusion centers”.

    The same scenario played out in a very big way with Dakota Access Pipeline protests, the oil industry and police were quite intimate.

    Therefore, my first suspect would be not the Egyptians but the oil industry.

    1. NoFreeWill

      It’s entirely possible the Egyptian gov is selling this data to oil companies/security businesses that work with them or something….

  5. Kien

    Ha ha. The good thing about holding conferences in China is that you can assume there will already be surveillance, and that it isn’t US government surveillance!

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