Egypt’s official COP27 app poses a “credible” “high-level” threat to any mobile device that has downloaded it, a coalition of cybersecurity and disinformation experts warned early Tuesday morning.
The app was marketed by COP officials to enable delegates and other conference participants to navigate the United Nations’ biweekly global climate summit by providing an events calendar, public transport routes and other services. According to the Google Play Store, more than 5,000 people have downloaded the app so far.
But the program requires access to a range of private and potentially compromising information, including a user’s GPS location, photos, emails and even passport number, the Guardian reported on Sunday. And cybersecurity experts warned the data could be used to track protesters and help Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s regime further crackdown on political dissent in Egypt, which has already arrested around 65,000 political prisoners.
On Tuesday, the Climate Action Against Disinformation Coalition, a group of more than 30 disinformation watchdogs and environmental organizations from around the world, released its own assessment reiterating these concerns and urging anyone who downloads the app to “extreme caution.” to let rule.
“There is credible reason to believe that the app compromises a device at the highest level,” the coalition wrote in a Tuesday press release. “From discussions with stakeholders, this appears to involve ‘hot-micing’ a user’s phone – essentially co-opting the microphone, camera and GPS system for surveillance – as well as screen recording permissions, attempts to access saved mailboxes.” and ‘root access.'”
It’s unclear whether deleting the app or even performing a phone’s original factory reset will fix the security threat, the coalition said, adding that anyone who has already downloaded the app should be wary that their communications may be monitored .
Protests are a daily occurrence at the United Nations climate talks, providing alternative channels for activists and other non-governmental organizations to voice their concerns and demands to decision-makers. But the Egyptian military is heavily patrolling this year’s conference, which kicked off on Sunday, and the government has confined demonstrations to a designated zone far from Sharm el-Sheikh, the resort town where COP27 is taking place.
The Egyptian authorities have also been criticized for cracking down on any dissent during the COP, a move many observers say is linked to the country’s long history of repressing political opposition.
Human and civil rights activists and anti-government Egyptian citizens say they have been targeted by government agencies since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2010 and 2011, when thousands of citizens from countries in North Africa and the Middle East engaged in massive pro-democracy protests – also in Egypt. Many Western viewers who followed the uprisings on social media believed the protests would usher in a new era of free elections in a region historically dominated by dictatorships. But those hopes were largely dashed by brutal government responses and calculated power grabs.
In Egypt, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi came to power when he was elected president in 2014 after a chaotic and violent series of events sparked by the Arab Spring uprisings. These included the overthrow of authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, as well as a 2013 military coup led by al-Sisi, a former Egyptian general, against then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy. Since his election, however, al-Sisi’s government has consolidated power in much the same way as previous regimes, often using violent tactics to repress political opposition.
Groups working to promote human, civil and political rights in Egypt have reported “ongoing and extensive” campaigns to monitor their activities. Recent incidents include a widespread phishing campaign targeting civil society groups in 2017 and the phone hacking of a prominent political opposition figure last year while he was living outside the country.
Last month, an Egyptian organizer from Human Rights Watch accused al-Sisi of “spying on everyone en masse” after a government official boasted on local TV about installing surveillance cameras in around 500 taxis operating in Sharm el-Sheikh.
Indeed, organizers of the global climate summit faced widespread criticism from human rights groups in the days leading up to the conference as more evidence emerged of Egypt’s crackdown on protests. The groups accuse the government of arbitrarily detaining protesters and setting up security checkpoints in the capital, Cairo, where authorities are forcing people to give up their phones to look for evidence of planned protests.
At least 93 people had been arrested in Egypt by Wednesday, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. The nonprofit human rights organization also said some protesters have been charged with abusing social media, spreading fake news and joining terrorist organizations — which the nonprofit says are baseless accusations often used by the government against activists to promote political opposition to suppress.
The treatment of protesters at COP27 goes against the spirit and goals of the world summit in many ways, climate activists said. While wealthy companies are getting the spotlight this year — including the Biden administration preparing to unveil a plan for private companies to take a leading role in climate action agreed at the summit — grassroots organizers largely have none Get access to the conference.
Many activists, particularly from poorer countries, say the Egyptian authorities have not given them a fair chance to get accreditation to attend this year’s summit. And the event’s extreme security, which includes concrete and wire barriers in addition to the extensive security checks, makes it impossible for many civil society groups to voice their demands in person or hold delegates accountable for their decisions at the talks.
The situation with regard to the appearance of the summit could be seen as particularly problematic. As my colleague Zoha Tunio reported today, this year’s COP will, for the first time, officially address the issue of climate reparations – the idea that wealthy nations historically responsible for causing the climate crisis owe a financial debt to developing countries that disproportionately exceed theirs bear the consequences.
But these official talks on reparations will not address which countries are responsible for the costs of climate “loss and damage,” or who exactly should foot the bill. And some individuals who offer compelling cases for redress may not have a seat at the negotiating table at all.
Ugandan youth activist Nyombi Morris, who – like 400 of his neighbors – lost his home to devastating flash floods in 2008, was met with bitter disappointment on arrival in Egypt this week, only to be told he would not be admitted to the summit he could attend He faces arrest and serious criminal charges if he attends rallies “to demand compensation for his mother’s farm and community.”
“I was so happy when they announced COP would be in Africa. I thought maybe I would get a chance to be in the room where the negotiations are taking place,” the 24-year-old activist told French TV news channel France 24. “When they started asking about our locations, where we will be stay, our passports, our names, we were worried.”
“It will not be easy for us to continue with our plan,” he said.
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1 billion dollars
That’s how much federal funding Congress approved this year to help developing countries adapt to the increasing impacts of climate change. That falls far short of the $11.4 billion that the Biden administration pledged last year for those efforts.