Privacy International exposes the secret player in Egypt's intelligence infrastructure
March 1, Cairo: It was summer 2014 when we first came across the acronym TRD while sifting through documents from the company Nokia Siemens Networks (Nokia) that had been leaked to Privacy International. The acronym was explained in the documents: it stood for Technical Research Department.
What we learned from the leak is the TRD had been purchasing an interception management system, a monitoring centre and an X25 network, a legacy technology allowing dial-up internet access. The first two technologies gave the TRD mass surveillance capabilities and – while we didn't have the details of how much had been paid – we could only guess it would have involved very considerable expenditure.
However, we could find absolutely no information about the TRD online. The only trace we could find of its existence was in customer lists of surveillance technologies resellers.
A unit with an extensive budget and mass surveillance capabilities was therefore situated somewhere away from public scrutiny and any form of public oversight.
A year of investigation allowed us to build up a picture of a unit tied to the General Intelligence Service – and yet seemingly independent from it – answerable only to the President.
In July 2015, Italian surveillance technology company Hacking Team was itself hacked. Millions of emails were leaked into the public domain. The emails revealed the TRD was ready to invest over a million dollars per year to obtain full access to the electronic devices of their targets.
Conversations between Hacking Team employees and their local resellers confirm what was already emerging from our investigation: the TRD is described as being located in the GIS offices and yet appears to be independent, with its own budget and operations. Their head? A 'Dr Layla', a woman about whom we can find no other information.
Many questions remain unanswered about the TRD: What exactly is the nature of its relationship with the GIS? What is its budget? When was it created? What is its precise function? How many people are affected by its surveillance?
Yesterday, we published our investigation. 'The President's Men? Inside the Technical Research Department, the secret player in Egypt's intelligence infrastructure' is a report that we hope will add to the demands that journalists and civil society have been making for greater government transparency and accountability. We hope that more investigations and research will emerge to further expose and shed light on Egypts' intelligence infrastructure.
Alongside our report we will send an open letter to President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to ask him, first and foremost, to avow the existence of the TRD. We also want him to use this report as an opportunity to bring more transparency into Egypt's surveillance operations.
It is vital that the TRD come out of the shadows and the public are made fully aware of its role. Its importance – both from a budget and a capability perspective – means that it needs to be accountable to the public. Surveilling its people, without any accountability to its people, severely undermines its claims to be a democratic country. We hope our report will spark a much needed debate and lead to much needed surveillance reform in Egypt.
The Oslo Times/IFEX