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Lebanese Telecom Minister Launches Controversial #ProtectPrivacy Campaign

Calling for public support online is more often done by civil society activists than by government officials. On Monday December 3rd, 2012, it was Lebanese Minister of Telecommunications Nicolas Sehnaoui who called for help, asking people to mobilize in the name of Internet privacy. In a Facebook post, he said he had just refused to hand over the personal information of Lebanese citizens to the Internal Security Forces (ISF):

Tonight, for the sake of our Privacy, I am calling for your support.
A call to all bloggers, e-journalists, Tweeters and Facebook Users and all members of our Social Media Community. Our Internet Privacy as Lebanese People is at stake.
Today I took a decision and refused a request from “Fer3 Ma3loumet” [information department] demanding content of all SMS
as well as username and password of all data sessions, BBM Webmail of 4 Million Lebanese.
This request is unacceptable, illogical and cannot be justified. We cannot solve a crime by committing another crime.
The decision is now in the hands of the Council Of Ministers and this is where I need your support.
I need you to share awareness everywhere to put pressure on all Members of the Council and stop this invasion of our Privacy.
RT, SHARE, EMAIL, BLOG. Use ANY means you find fit to say “As a Lebanese Citizen I refuse to give up on my Internet Privacy”

The ISF allegedly needs this information in the context of investigations on a number of attempted assassinations and security incidents that shook the country in recent years. The most recent episode was the killing of Lebanon's chief intelligence chief Wissam Al Hassan, in a bomb explosion, which claimed the lives of eight people and wounded around 80 in October 2012.

Many responded to the call in support of the Minister and expressed their outrage at the ISF:

Micha Kandalaft tweets:

@michakandalaft: Privacy:the right 2 determine when, how, and to whom, one's personal info 2 b revealed AND IT'S MINE @NicolaSehnaoui #ProtectPrivacy

And Mohamad Shaer adds:

@mohdalishaer: hey ISF u may be able to outsmart part of the people but definitely not a whole population. my passwd:nonofurbusiness #protectprivacy

Within hours, it quickly became a full-fledged campaign under the hashtag #ProtectPrivacy. Sehnaoui retweeted every one of those messages, and declared he would be taking the tweets to the Council of Ministers.

@NicolaSehnaoui: I give you my word that I will be printing all the #ProtectPrivacy tweets and taking them with me to the Council of Ministers

Bloggers joined the chorus, denouncing a worrying invasion of privacy.

Abir Ghattas warns:

(…) it is not OK under the name of National security to invade my privacy and break the law, in the end that is how most dictatorships start.

However, others were skeptical about the politician’s claims.

In his blog, Mohammed Najm points out:

The dates requesting the username, name, address, passwords for emails, phone app, VOIP,.. are July and August? If this is the case, why did you wait from July and August to December 3 to start a just campaign against the illegal ISF request?
What was the Lebanese Government reply to these previous requests? And why we didn't know about it back then?

Indeed, documents about the data request in questions published by news website al Nashra [ar] date back to August 2012, and so far, there has been no trace of more recent requests.

On the other hand, some Lebanese see it as a case of Privacy vs. Security, and they want Security first. Elie Fares explains his choice in a blogpost:

As a Lebanese citizen, I don’t care about someone getting controlled access to my privacy if it meant I don’t have to die for finishing work at 3 p.m on a Friday. #ProtectPrivacy? Honestly, I’d rather #ProtectSafety first and foremost.

In a similar perspective, Wassim Labban tweets:

@Wlabban: @NicolaSehnaoui Please collaborate in protecting our life as a first step so that we can live then have privacy to protect #ProtectPrivacy

And Sara Assaf writes:

@SaraAssaf: Believe it or not, unless u killed Al Hassan, Ashraf Rifi doesn't give a damn about ur private SMS chats! #ProtectPeople vs #ProtectPrivacy

It is worth noting that the ISF in Lebanon is perceived as being under the influence of the March 14 political coalition, whereas Sehnaoui belongs to the rival camp known as March 8. Direct and indirect attacks are frequent between the two factions, and debates on local issues are undeniably affected by the spectrum of political allegiances. The affair is currently in the hands of the Council of Ministers. By Tuesday evening, Minister Sehnaoui announced the following on Twitter and Facebook:

@NicolaSehnaoui: The issue was not enlisted on today's Council of Ministers Agenda. Hopefully it will be discussed next Wednesday. #ProtectPrivacy

  • http://www.facebook.com/mohamad.najem Mohamad Najem

    Despite the fact I agree that Sehnaoui’s move was mostly political. I can’t but to push that Protect our online privacy is a must. Asking to access 3.7m users data is not allowed, under any circumstances. You don’t accuse a population of a country to find the criminal, that’s what ISF concept is, and it shouldn’t be allowed.

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