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Surveillance at U.N. Climate Conference

By Thomas Neuburger

There's so much to write about these days. I'd considered doing a comment on the upcoming Term of the U.S. Supreme Court, including this:

The nightmarish Supreme Court case that could gut Medicaid

I still might; stay tuned.

But the following takes the cake. As usual these days, this is two stories wrapped into one.

Official COP27 Climate App Is a Surveillance Tool

It's big news in a small world that COP 27 is being held this week in the lovely Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Sharm el-Sheikh, where UN climate luminaries will contemplate helping the victims of the wealthy world's climate violence

For those not following the UN climate conference news — and let's face it, most people aren't — COP 27 is the 27th Conference of the Parties, i.e., those nations participating in the United Nations effort to stop global warming. These conferences happen every year, the rhetoric gets more and more desperate, and inaction piles on inaction like stones at a rockslide.

Still, they try. There's something special about this year's event, though. The app.

From the Guardian:

Fears mount that Cop27 app could be used by Egypt to surveil regime’s critics
Cybersecurity experts warn that official Cop27 climate app requires access to a user’s location, photos and even emails
There are mounting fears over the surveillance of delegates at the Cop27 climate talks in Egypt, with cybersecurity experts warning that the official app for the talks requires access to a user’s location, photos and even emails upon downloading it.
The revelation, as more than 25,000 heads of state, diplomats, negotiators, journalists and activists from around the world gather at the climate summit that starts in Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday, has raised concerns that Egypt’s authoritarian regime will be able to use an official platform for a United Nations event to track and harass attendees and critical domestic voices.
The official Cop27 app, which has already been downloaded more than 5,000 times, requires sweeping permissions from users before it installs, including the ability for Egypt’s ministry of communications and information technology to view emails, scour photos and determine users’ locations, according to an expert who analysed it for the Guardian.

That part's bad enough. That an official platform, UN-created (one supposes) and sanctioned, could be designed for surveillance is terrible. The big shock in the Guardian story — at least in the Guardian editor's mind — is that the evil Egyptian dictator is the beneficiary.

This data could be used by Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s regime to further crack down on dissent in a country that already holds about 65,000 political prisoners. Egypt has conducted a series of mass arrests of people accused of being protesters in the lead-up to Cop27 and sought to vet and isolate any activists near the talks, which will see governments attempting to hammer out an agreement over dealing with the climate crisis.

Focusing on the Wrong Perp?

But does this focus on the wrong perp, the wrong evil surveiller? Note this:

[Amr] Magdi [of Human Rights Watch] said ... that conferences like Cop27 are “an excellent chance from a security perspective for information gathering,” including for certain activists “they want to know more about”. [emphasis added]

Who's "they"? There's quite a lot in the piece about the super-surveillance of the Egyptian state; it's well worth your time to read it. But as you do, ask these questions:

  1. Who developed the app? (The article doesn't say.)

  2. Who at the U.N. approved the app? (More silence from the article.)

  3. If the U.N. developed the app, why put the surveillance capability in it?

  4. If the Egyptian government developed it, why did the U.N. accept it as official?

At best, the U.N. let Egypt develop the app and rubber-stamped the result without considering its misuse. I consider that unlikely.

At less-than-best, the U.N. let Egypt develop the app, knew how it would be abused, and said yes anyway as part of the deal that let them use the gorgeous resort town of Sharm el-Sheik as its 2022 venue. Egypt gets its spyware; the U.N. gets to host its climate-concerned luminaries in style (see above).

But at the very worst, spying on delegates and attendees at climate conferences is becoming more and more normal, regardless of where they will be held, and the U.N. is on board with that. After all, the climate is getting worse by the year, noticeably enough that even the worst climate deniers have shifted tactics to climate delay instead.

Can you imagine, even in the Land of the Free, that the U.S. government wouldn't keep a close eye, a very close eye, on so-called “eco-terrorists” if a major event like this were held within its borders? Police regularly brutalize pipeline protesters already. U.S. surveillance of climate protesters is happening today. All of this has already been normalized.

If COP28 were hosted in Midtown Manhattan, don’t you think every suspect cell phone in a 50-mile radius would be tracked till the conference ended — and every cell phone, period, near the event?

What easier way to do this than via an app? And if the U.N. sanctions the spying, all the better.

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