Since September 2014, Lebanese security agencies have had unrestricted access to the telecom data of the country’s residents and visitors, in violation of the constitution and local laws. Since late 2015, the Lebanese government has used biometric technology for passports and has since drastically increased the number of surveillance cameras throughout the capital, Beirut, without any data protection guarantees or laws.
Journalists Elham Barjas and Hussein Mehdy will report on the impact of the growing surveillance state on individual and collective privacy. The journalists will investigate how personal data is used in Lebanon – answering crucial questions related to its collection and storage – and look into the state and non-state actors profiting from its distribution.
Boundless and warrantless surveillance can stunt social progress and entrench a culture of fear. Barjas and Mehdy believe it could be a particularly dangerous weapon in the hands of a government that is widely viewed as corrupt – and in a country where journalists rarely ask such questions and self-censorship is widespread.
The example of one security organ, in particular, illustrates why Lebanese have cause for concern. The Interior Ministry’s Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Rights Bureau was founded in 2006 under questionable circumstances, ostensibly to investigate online financial crimes, violations of intellectual property rights, and child pornography. Since then, its remit has grown to include policing online speech for defamation and libel. “In effect, the Bureau’s expansive powers have allowed it to summon, detain, and question journalists, bloggers, and activists for articles and online posts written or shared on their social media accounts,” according to a 2016 report by the Social Media Exchange, a digital rights advocacy group working in the Middle East and North Africa.
In addition, the country has suffered from sporadic acts of violence, suicide bombings, and assassinations for over a decade that the government has used as a pretext to tighten the reins on its people via stepped-up surveillance. In the past several years, scores of people have been killed and hundreds wounded in bombings around Beirut and in towns near the Syrian border. In 2014, ISIS kidnapped 29 police officers and soldiers after being routed by the Lebanese army from the northeastern border town of Arsal. Military operations against extremist militant groups are ongoing there, but so is the collective punishment of the town's residents. The journalists will also be investigating punitive actions in the digital age, such as an Internet shutdown in Arsal.
Barjas and Mehdy will take a two-pronged approach to their investigation. Mehdy will investigate the potential consequences of the surveillance that thousands of people are subjected to every day, without their consent or even knowledge. Barjas will look at the issue from a legal perspective, highlighting violations to the right to privacy and making recommendations for reform.
The investigation will produce an in-depth report to be presented at a public event featuring civil society activists, journalists, and lawyers, who Barjas and Mehdy hope will build on their work and continue the push for more transparency and accountability from the Lebanese government.
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