May 26, 2017

24 hours later: What we know about the blocking of Mada Masr’s website

Mirrored from now blocked in Egypt:
Access to Mada Masr’s website via most of Egypt’s internet service providers (ISPs) has been blocked since Wednesday evening.

The country’s official state news agency, MENA, quoted a high-level security source on Wednesday night as saying that access to 21 websites, which had disseminated “content that supports terrorism and extremism and deliberately spreads lies,” had been blocked in Egypt in accord with “relevant legal proceedings.”

Mada Masr has not been officially informed that any party has taken official or legal measures against it.

Several other websites have also been blocked, including two Egyptian publications: Masr al-Arabiya and the website of the print weekly Al-Mesryoon. The list also includes some Qatari or Qatar-funded news outlets that support or are managed by the Muslim Brotherhood, principal among them Al Jazeera and Huffington Post Arabic, in addition to the official website for Palestinian political movement Hamas.

The statement from the high-level security source was circulated to newspapers and wire services from the office of the presidency, Mada Masr has learned. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, Interior Ministry officials have told reporters that they had nothing to do with drafting or executing the decision to block the websites.

The move to block access to a range of websites affiliated with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt happened in conjunction with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirate’s decision to block many of the same sites. Egyptian authorities added Mada Masr to its list, however.

Mada Masr’s website is still accessible in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

In response to Mada Masr’s inquiry into the restriction of access to its website, Supreme Media Regulatory Council Secretary General Ahmed Selim said that the council, formed in April, has yet to take over control of digital media outlets. He directed inquiries to the Communication and Information Technology Ministry.

Mada Masr attempted to contact National Telecom Regulatory Authority head and Communication and Information Technology Minister Yasser al-Qady. His secretary acknowledged receipt of the questions and said a further response would be pending. As of publication, Mada has yet to receive a reply.

Mada also contacted newly elected Journalists Syndicate head Abdel Mohsen Salama, who said he was monitoring the situation closely but was not aware that access to Egyptian websites had been blocked. He asked Mada to draft a memo detailing the circumstances of the incident, which he would then submit to the Supreme Media Regulatory Council.

Faced with an absence of information from official sources, Mada Masr turned to technical experts, who diagnosed an RST injection attack as the reason for the inability to access the website.

What is a RST injection attack?

The internet is a network made up of computers and the electronic messages and packets of IP (internet protocol) data that pass between them. The transmission of the information that constitutes this system is formalized in various systems called “protocols.”

IP is the most basic protocol used on the internet, and it is usually coupled with TCP (transmission control protocol), which is used for web browsing and email. Data on computers is broken down into a series of ones and zeros. Each zero or one represents the smallest data unit in the language of computer communication. Data packets sent via TCP contain a block of information called a TCP header, which includes details concerning the sending and receiving parties in the exchange. In normal communications, the TCP header’s bit is set to zero and has no effect on communication. If the value is changed to one, the computers party to the exchange are notified that they should stop using the TCP connection and should no longer send any more packets using the connection’s identifying numbers.

A third party can monitor TCP packets being sent from various points of a connection and then interject a forged packet containing a TCP reset command that will change the bit of the header from zero to one. The connection is interrupted with each attempt to complete the communication.
One of the most famous examples of a RST injection attack involves the firewall that China uses to censor and suspend access to a number of websites.

This is the type of interruption which has blocked access to Mada Masr’s website in Egypt.

Continuing attempts to control the internet

Attempts to open the sites that have been blocked in Egypt have yielded a range of behaviors across ISPs. For example, most sites can be accessed via Noor ADSL.

Mada Masr has received various reports from users, pointing to the fact that the block is not uniformly in force, varying across the same ISPs at different geographical locations and times. This suggests that the RST attack has been decentralized and enforced by individual ISPs.

The recent interference intersects with the government’s decision to block The New Arab website last year. An October 2016 report on anomalies in Egypt’s online ecology conducted by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) — an international network operating under the Tor Project that monitors internet censorship, traffic manipulation and signs of surveillance — found that the injected RST packet observed to obstruct user-server communication with The New Arab website had the same “static IP identification (IP ID) value of 0x3412 as the injected RST packets” used in an attempt to interfere with Tor in Egypt. This similarity is significant, as The New Arab, which is Qatari funded and sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, is known to be blocked by the Egyptian government, suggesting that a state agency using the same server location conducted the RST injection attacks on Tor.

The same technique was used in December to disrupt Signal, the messaging and voice calling application supported by Open Whisper Systems’ encryption protocol.

Much of this evidence suggests an image of the Egyptian government as directly involved in a practice of mass surveillance, as documented in a January report published by Mada Masr.
These events are part of a wider history of the state’s attempt to control the internet, a principal concern since the January 2011 revolution and one that has risen to the surface in numerous arrests made recently in connection with the administration of Facebook pages. The government is also currently preparing legislation to combat cybercrime.

In a joint policy report published in June 2016 under the title “Anti-Technology,” the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Support for Information Technology Center, and the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) wrote that the law “violates the principle of equality before the law and contains penalties regarding the use of information technology.”

In April 2016, sources with direct knowledge of discussions between Facebook and the Egyptian government told Reuters that Egypt had blocked Facebook’s Free Basics internet service at the end of 2015 after the US company refused to give the state the ability to monitor users.

A month earlier, in March, Google published a statement asserting that it had became “aware of unauthorized digital certificates for several Google domains” issued by an intermediate certificate authority held by Egyptian company MCS Holdings, which had been contracted by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) to issue certificates for domains they had registered.

“Rather than keep the private key in a suitable HSM, MCS installed it in a man-in-the-middle proxy,” the Google statement read. “These devices intercept secure connections by masquerading as the intended destination and are sometimes used by companies to intercept their employees’ secure traffic for monitoring or legal reasons.”

In a previous report, Mada Masr highlighted leaked documents that emerged after Cairo’s State Security headquarters was stormed by protesters in March 2011, which showed that MCS had been corresponding with Egypt’s State Security Investigation Service (SSIS) to obtain the FinFisher system, surveillance software offered by the British-German company Gamma International.

The move to block and shut down websites is a new step from these recent forms of interference. The government is turning from mass surveillance, to directly intervening to block access to the websites of Egyptian companies operating in Egypt, including Mada Masr and Masr al-Arabiya.

The legality of blocking access to websites

Access to websites in Egypt can be legally curtailed in two ways, says Amr Gharbeia, a technology and human rights researcher at the EIPR. The first is tied to the issuance of an order either by a prosecutor or investigating judge, or, during a state of emergency, when the president can move to block access in his capacity as military governor. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency on April 9.

The second mechanism concerns the anti-terrorism law, Article 29 of which stipulates a five-year prison term for anyone who “establishes a telecommunications or internet site to promote ideas or beliefs that encourage committing terrorist acts or to broadcast [information] to mislead security agencies or influence the course of justice with regard to a crime of terrorism.”

“If there is a website being investigated for one of the aforementioned crimes, Article 49 of the anti-terrorism law allows the public prosecutor or investigating judge to suspect or block the entire website or the content relevant to Article 29,” says Hassan al-Azhary, a lawyer with AFTE. Azhary says it is likely that the decision to block access to Mada Masr’s website comes in accord with an order emanating from Egypt’s judiciary.

Gharbeia points out that there may be a third option in play, which he says is more dangerous, namely that the government asked ISPs to block the websites in question, and that they complied in a manner outside of legal bounds.

If that is the case, there are two violations, according Gharbeia: one against freedom of expression and one against the sovereignty of law.

How to work around the block

The Electronic Federation Foundation has published is a simple guide detailing how to regain access to blocked websites and circumvent censorship.

March 08, 2017

"I‘m in the most abusive relationship of my life"


A conversation overheard:

„I love a woman who hates me, who screams at me and calls me names, who demeans me, a woman who curses me and calls me her enemy, and who shows no kindness to no one.“

„Wow, this sounds bad. What does she do?“

„She beats her kids, tortures them even out of vileness and kills some. She says she has to do this for the security of her other children, but it is in truth because those kids talked back to her and she won‘t take that and has no mercy, no humanity in her. Just cursing and beating and killing. And neglecting them, letting them go dirty and hungry to bed without caring or doing something to make their life bearable. While she eats the best food and is interested only in her own good. A terrible mother.“

„That‘s awful.“

„It is. But she tells me, I am out to destroy her. – But I do nothing. Merely criticising her – and rightly so, I should say – for the horrific way she treats her children. I don‘t know what to do.“

„You love the woman? Why?“

„I don*t know. There is beauty in her, real beauty. If only she would allow for it to be seen.“

„But a woman who acts like that one cannot love. Impossible.“

„I know. But I cannot help it. I don‘t understand it myself. But I can‘t get myself to withdraw and leave her.“

„This is awful. What is the woman called.“

„Egypt. She‘s called Egypt.“

„You have a problem.“

„I have to face facts. I‘m in the most abusive relationship of my life.“

„How long has this been going on?“

„Almost 40 years now. And she won‘t change. Just won‘t.“

„I cannot help you. You are lost to reason.“

„That is the tragedy, yes. And I am not finding a way out ...“

– Silence –  

February 03, 2017

Nothing has changed in Egypt, my dear little Omar Salah ...

... on the contrary. Things have become worse since you were murdered four years ago. Your killer is free again and there is still no respect for the life of Egyptians.

Three years ago, I wrote this

Letter to my Avatar – My dear little Omar Salah ...

one year ago to this day you were selling sweet potatoes on a street in Cairo near the U.S. embassy. It was not something you did out of choice, but because your family is poor and needs you to help secure an income. There was nothing special about this February 3rd, 2013, Cairo was calm and sunny, and nothing prepared you, when you left your home in the morning, for what was to come.

It was about noon, when a soldier came up to your cart and demanded from you to sell him two potatoes. You urgently needed to go to the bathroom at that moment and told him you would attend to him right when you would be back. The soldier did not accept this and threatened you with his gun saying he was going to shoot you if you didn't serve him immediately.

You were just a 12 year old boy. What could you know about the defects of human minds or the willingness of adults to be vicious? You did not believe him and in the innocent mind that was your right to have with 12 years of age you replied: "But you can't shoot me!"

To this the soldier replied: "I can't?" And then he pulled the trigger and shot you twice in your little heart. You were dead immediately.

The shock this had on those who witnessed it around you, was profound. The other children street vendors cried out and emotions ran high while your blood was spilling onto the street of Cairo. Amongst the soldiers, heated discussions started and the whole situation quickly became a mess.

The U.S. embassy tweeted that there had been an 'incident' in front of their gates but gave no details. For quite some time no one was aware what horror had just happened under the sunny sky of Egypt. And with the first shock subsiding that you indeed were dead right there on the street and for all to see, the military and police started frantically to do anything they could to cover up this horrific crime against you.

While your mother and father sat at home unaware they had lost you forever, the army took your little body to a morgue and covered you hoping that no one would find you and no one would find out. For accepting that one of theirs had killed you in cold blood and take responsibility for this action is not on the mind of the army of Egypt.

You must know, little Omar, that you are not the only one they killed, and not the only one they did not care for after he was dead. Over a year before you left us they had shot dead many protesters at Maspero and ran others over with heavy APCs. Again, later, they killed many at the Cabinet clashes. And so it goes on and on until today, for killing someone is the job of an army, they think. And they don't differentiate between borders or cities, it doesn't matter where they use their guns, they always think that they are in the right to kill. For no other but them has any right to a life. Only a right to be disrespected when – in the eyes of the army – the situation calls for it.

Of course, on that day one year ago, your killing had nothing to do with defending anybody. The soldier who killed you did not feel threatened or feared for the safety of Egypt. He simply expressed what he had learned as a conscript: that you as an Egyptian human being were not worth anything and that your life was cheap enough to be destroyed.

After your father had frantically tried to find you, aided by friends and NGO workers, your little blood stained body was finally found in the morgue. At first again the army tried to deny it had anything to do with this. But as pressure mounted and more and more witnesses spoke up to what they saw that day, the spokesperson felt it would hurt the army more to stay cowardly quiet than to come out with it and he put a statement on their Facebook page declaring your death an "accident" for which he offered your heartbroken parents his "apology".

The story goes that the soldier did not really mean to shoot you. He had thought that his gun was empty – because apparently Egyptian soldiers don't learn how to find out if their gun is loaded or empty and never load them themselves. It must be some hidden force that either loads their guns or not and then falls silent on the matter so that a soldier who carries his gun through Cairo is never aware whether he can actually use it or not. It seems an odd way to run an army or a disturbing way they play games, but then, my little Omar, there are so many odd things surrounding them that one does not wonder much anymore these days. Of course, after the soldier fired the first shot into your heart realising the gun was loaded after all, he had to fire a second time into your heart just to make sure he wasn't mistaken. That we understand. The army is a responsible body and what must be done must be done to make certain that facts are facts. Even in accidents.

Shortly after the world learned what had happened to you on that wonderful sunny February day in Cairo, a video surfaced on YouTube showing you only a few weeks earlier when you were interviewed on the street by an organisation helping needy children, checking whether you might be eligible for their projects.

You were humble and well-mannered but a little shy and uneasy what they would come up with and whether you would be good enough for what they were looking for in you. You told them quietly that you had to sell sweet potatoes because your family was poor and your father had wanted you to support the family. And in all shyness you disclosed into the camera that you would love to go to school and learn to read and write.

When the interviewer asked what you're dreams were, you looked away and were uneasy on this. And then you answered him. You said: "I cannot afford dreams, Sir." And you looked into the camera and then down again as if you were ashamed for this that was none of your fault.

Seeing this video of you, dear little Omar, broke many peoples heart. Hearing that you could not afford to dream, which is a basic human right for a child, and knowing you were not even allowed to live, was unbearable to witness. Seeing your wonderful eyes, your look of modesty, shyness and subdued hope, your life might one day, just might perhaps change for the better in some far-away future after all, teared us apart. It was then that I took your picture and made it my avatar on twitter. I wanted to give you your face back that had been left so sad and soiled and empty of life after the soldier had shot you dead.

There was no justice for you after all this. On public pressure of human rights activists and your family that the army tried to silence with money, a military trial was finally staged that we all never had any witnessing to. Only afterwards we were told that the soldier who shot you dead – just like that, on a sunny day in a street of Cairo – received a sentence of three years by the military judge.

Imagine that, Omar, three years for killing you and destroying your life forever. Do you know that Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, activists of the January 25 revolution, got just the same sentence of three years for allegedly staging a protest without a permission? So killing you, in the eyes of the army, apparently was not worse than going out to protest without requesting a permit. You see what I mean when I say, we do not understand the ways of the army, but we trust they know well what they do?

One year on, my dear little Omar, I have thought long and deep over whether I would let you rest now in your little grave and put a shroud over your wonderful eyes that I see everyday on my twitter timeline. On twitter people have not a very long attention span, you must know. They easily get bored seeing the same avatar over and over for months and need changes a lot to be easy. And many times when I write critical tweets, some tweeps who do not know me or you come and slam me with words like: "Shut up, kid" – actually thinking, I was you and not a grown up man with 35 years working experience. They don't take my words seriously, because – just like the soldier – they think, a young boy has no value and no meaning and must not be respected. l cringe sometimes when I read their "kid", knowing they mean you, and feel the pain of your death they are unaware of and don't understand, and then I tell them to read my profile and come to the conclusion that whoever has no heart for you in his reaction is not worth thinking about anyway. And leave it at that.

It would be so much easier now to let you rest, my little friend, after this long year of tears and pains and death that has sweeped Egypt empty of so many hopes for a decent life, for justice and freedom and bread. On twitter they would jubilate to see a fresh face. The army would love to not have to see you anymore in the public sphere. The tweeps I criticise would not be able to slam me anymore with calling me 'kid'. We would all be so much happier, dear little Omar, if we forgot about what happened a year ago and that we can't change what happened to you after all.

But then, Omar, what can we change if we don't remember? What possibilities will we manage to create if we fall silent and look away and pretend it is all not as sad, not as bad, not as tragic as it actually is? Since your death more than a thousand Egyptians were killed, and they give us many reasons why that, different to you, was not an accident but needed to happen. But apparently they can 'live' with it just as easily. A strange tale has crept into the narrative that pretends that destroying Egyptian lives is inevitable and must be accepted, as if death more than life was the natural thing of the world that one can shrug off to return to the daily pleasures and chores. With every death of human beings falling bloodied in the streets of Egypt we are told to believe that nothing of this can be changed because it is the way of the world. And when we look away and shut our ears to the cries of the mothers and fathers of Egypt who, whether they agreed with their children or not, break down over losing what was precious to them forever and think they just cannot go on anymore, we change the world for the worst, where dying becomes the natural thing and living is just a luxury granted by some in power – whether we are lucky or not.

It must not be luck, little Omar, whether we live. It must be a right, a birth given right that no one must be allowed to take from us. Not with any form of being deliberate, calling it an accident to fool us or an inevitable need to fool us twice. If we don't insist on this, that life is the right and death is the wrong, we have lost everything that makes it worth existing on this planet we call the earth.

You had no dreams, Omar, because we did not allow you to be able to afford them. On that already we all failed you miserably. Your parents to this day cry over your death and will not forget the pain in their heart. Your eyes look at me on my avatar with all the shy innocence that was you in your modest way and I think of the narrative that all this has to be, is inevitable and not worse than going to a protest and forgetting to get a permission. So your killing has the value of a petty crime and your death is worth as much as not filling out a form. And I look at your eyes and mine fill with tears.

Let them laugh about it, for all I care. The other day I saw your picture on the internet, just the one that is my avatar that I see every day. But when I saw it, my little Omar, my heart stopped still. Like yours did on that fateful February 3rd a year ago, when a soldier thought you were worth nothing and could be done away with. When I recovered from this shock, that did not seem to make any sense, I knew I would not fail you and not leave you until justice is served. To you, Omar, who could not afford to have wishes and were not allowed to have hope – and to all the others that have lost a life that was dear to them when others decided it was not.

You will stay my avatar, my little Omar. I will tell you when Egypt is ready that we can part. Just now is not yet the time. Be patient. It will still take a long time. But where life is at stake, you know it well, time and patience means nothing. Life means all.