By Declan Walsh – The New York Times –
As Uber sought this year to expand in Egypt, one of the most competitive ride-sharing markets, its executives faced a troubling request from Egyptian ministers: Could they provide access to heaven?
“Heaven” is Uber’s term for an internal software that provides live data about customers, drivers and journeys — in effect, it tracks any Uber ride across a giant digital map.
That software would be a powerful tool in the hands of Egypt’s security services, which, under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, have ramped up spying on citizens as part of an effort to stifle dissent and entrench Mr. Sisi in power.
Already reeling from accusations of overly aggressive business practices in the United States, Uber rejected the Egyptian demand. But its chief competitor in the Middle East — the Dubai-based Careem, which operates in 55 cities, has similar tracking software and serves three million Egyptians — took a closer look, according to three ride-sharing executives.
In a meeting with Careem’s chief executive, Mudassir Sheikha, Egyptian military intelligence offered preferential treatment in return for access to the company’s customer and driver data. That proposal ultimately went nowhere, Careem says, but it did lay bare the Egyptian government’s intentions, which might soon be law with or without the consent of Careem or Uber.
A bill soon to go before Egypt’s Parliament would require the ride-sharing services to place their server computers inside Egypt and to link their data to “relevant bodies” in government — a recipe, some worry, for intrusive and sweeping surveillance.
The security services can already track Egyptians through their cellphones. But ride-share spying speaks volumes about Mr. Sisi’s ambitions for electronic surveillance, at a time when his government has already imprisoned citizens for social media posts, has hacked activists using fake emails and has blocked encrypted messaging applications — all as the country heads toward a presidential election next year.
“It’s hard to imagine a legitimate reason for having this kind of extensive data on people’s movements, unless it’s part of a broader surveillance effort,” said Claire Lauterbach of Privacy International, a research and advocacy group in London. “And given Egypt’s human rights record, that’s not a very positive sign.”
In December, Egypt blocked Signal, an encrypted messaging app popular with activists — the first time the program had been censored in an entire country, according to its developer, Open Whisper Systems, which circumvented the block after one week.
In February, prominent human rights groups said they had been hit by more than 100 phishing attacks — deceptive emails to lure victims into surrendering their passwords. Called “Nile Phish” by Citizen Lab, a Canadian research group, the attacks mostly targeted Egyptian activists already subjected to a government crackdown on aid groups.
Prosecutions have increased for criticism of Mr. Sisi on social media. In April, a court in Alexandria sentenced Mohamed Ramadan, a lawyer, to 10 years in prison on charges that included insulting the president on Facebook. A Cairo man was arrested weeks later because of his Facebook comments about Aya Hijazi, an imprisoned Egyptian-American aid worker freed after a personal appeal to Mr. Sisi by President Trump.
The Egyptian government justifies such harsh measures by pointing to the threat from militants like Islamic State, whose fighters have killed more than 100 Christians in the past six months, most recently a busful of pilgrims. Splinter factions of the banned Muslim Brotherhood occasionally attack the police.
But much of Egypt’s surveillance power seems directed at young and technologically adept Egyptians — the same demographic group behind the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
Khaled Atraby, a 28-year-old student, was arrested, beaten, Tasered and interrogated at length about his Facebook page last November, he said in a telephone interview. “They wanted to know why I posted sympathetic comments about people who had disappeared into custody,” Mr. Atraby said.
A few days after that conversation, the police arrested Mr. Atraby a second time, also in relation to a Facebook post.
Groups campaigning to block sales of electronic surveillance systems to repressive governments achieved a victory in January when Italy canceled the export license for an internet monitoring system to Egypt.
But the recent talks with Uber and Careem are a new departure for Mr. Sisi’s surveillance drive.
Both companies already voluntarily share customer data with law enforcement officials in many countries, usually on a case-by-case basis in response to a legal request. But experts say that access to “heaven” or a similar system could give Egyptian security agencies much wider abilities — to track multiple people from the same group, or analyze a customer’s trip history or travel patterns.
Egypt’s demand for this information, when it came late last year, alarmed Uber management in San Francisco. Its executives had already contended with a backlash in 2014 for having used “God view,” as “heaven” was previously known, to impress friends at parties and monitor the whereabouts of a reporter.
In more recent months Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, has faced accusations of unethical business behavior that drew stinging criticism and called the company’s nearly $70 billion valuation into question.
Still, Egypt is a market that ride-sharing companies cannot ignore. After a failed attempt to gain a foothold in China, Uber has turned to South America, other parts of Asia and, importantly, the Middle East for growth.
Egypt, with 92 million people and low rates of car ownership, is a prize target. Cairo has become Uber’s third-largest city by number of rides, after London and Paris, in the region that spans Europe and the Middle East.
Competition with Careem is fierce: A four-mile journey across Cairo now costs less than $1.
Uber confirmed through a spokesman that the subject of data-sharing came up with Egyptian ministers during recent consultations about the new law. But live data-sharing was out of the question. “We do not and have never provided any government with real-time access to riders’ data, and we’ll always fight to protect their privacy,” said the spokesman, Matt Kallman.
The calculation was different at Careem, which some call the Uber of the Middle East. With a $350 million investment led by the Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten in December, Careem’s market value exceeds $1 billion. The market in Egypt represents about half of its business.
The first hint of Careem’s approach came in October when Wael Fakharany, then its Egypt manager, suggested in a television interview that he might share company data with the Interior Ministry. Weeks later, Mr. Fakharany held the first of two meetings at the military intelligence headquarters in Cairo’s Nasr City neighborhood, with a view to a possible arrangement.
According to a ride-sharing official with direct knowledge of that meeting, Gen. Alaa Atwa of the Egyptian military offered a deal. A military-controlled company, MSA Dahab, would take a 5 percent stake in Careem’s Egypt subsidiary and host its servers. In return, MSA Dahab would help Careem “in negotiations with government authorities.” Careem’s chief, Mr. Sheikha, attended the second meeting on Jan. 19.
“The general said, ‘Information is power, and we need it,’” the official said. In support of his account he provided an internal Careem memo outlining terms of the proposed venture. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution from Egyptian security forces.
In an interview, Mr. Sheikha did not dispute that the military meeting had taken place but described it as part of regular corporate lobbying. “Military intelligence is a relevant stakeholder in this topic because government wants to ensure the service is being run in a secure manner,” he said.
Mr. Sheikha denied that Careem had ever been asked to provide real-time information. “I am hearing this from you now,” he said.
A spokesman for military intelligence declined to respond to questions, as did Mr. Fakharany, who left Careem in February.
Both ride-sharing companies are lobbying the government to amend the draft law that is currently under legal review. Uber argues that the vaguely worded provision on data-sharing could deter foreign investment in Egypt.
The draft law is unlikely to meet much resistance in Parliament, which is stuffed with Mr. Sisi’s supporters and influenced by the intelligence agencies. If it does pass in its current form, it could leave both companies a stark choice: comply with regulations that invade customer privacy, or leave a lucrative market to competitors.
Mike Isaac contributed reporting from San Francisco, and Nour Youssef from Cairo –
Photo: Uber drivers at a service and training center in Cairo in May. Competition in the ride-hailing sector is fierce: A four-mile journey across Cairo now costs less than $1. Credit Gehad Hamdy/Picture-Alliance, via Associated Press