The Egyptian government is currently debating a bill which would compel all ride-sharing companies to store any Egyptian user data within Egypt. It would also create a system that would let the authorities have real-time access to their passenger and trip information. If passed, companies such as Uber and its Dubai-based competitor Careem would be forced to grant unfettered direct access to their databases to unspecified security authorities. Such a sweeping surveillance measure is particularly ripe for abuse in a country known for its human rights violations, including an attempts to use surveillance against civil society. The bill is expected to pass a final vote before Egypt’s House on May 14th or 15th.
Article 10 of the bill requires companies to relocate their servers containing all Egyptian users’ information to within the borders of the Arab Republic of Egypt. Compelled data localization has frequently served as an excuse for enhancing a state’s ability to spy on its citizens.
Even more troubling, article 9 of the bill forces these same ride-sharing companies to electronically link their local servers directly to unspecified authorities, from police to intelligence agencies. Direct access to a server would provide the Egyptian government unrestricted, real-time access to data on all riders, drivers, and trips. Under this provision, the companies themselves would have no ability to monitor the government’s use of their network data.
Effective computer security is hard, and no system will be free of bugs and errors. As the volume of ride-sharing usage increases, risks to the security and privacy of ridesharing databases increase as well. Careem just admitted on April 23rd that its databases had been breached earlier this year. The bill’s demand to grant the Egyptian government unrestricted server access greatly increases the risk of accidental catastrophic data breaches, which would compromise the personal data of millions of innocent individuals. Careem and Uber must focus on strengthening the security of their databases instead of granting external authorities unfettered access to their servers.
Direct access to the databases of any company without adequate legal safeguards undermines the privacy and security of innocent individuals, and is therefore incompatible with international human rights obligations. For any surveillance measure to be legal under international human rights standards, it must be prescribed by law. It must be “necessary” to achieve a legitimate aim and “proportionate” to the desired aim. These requirements are vital in ensuring that the government does not adopt surveillance measures which threaten the foundations of a democratic society.
The European Court of Human Rights, in Zakharov v. Russia, made clear that direct access to servers is prone to abuse:
“...a system which enables the secret services and the police to intercept directly the communications of each and every citizen without requiring them to show an interception authorisation to the communications service provider, or to anyone else, is particularly prone to abuse.”
Moreover, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has also discussed the importance of having an independent authorization prior to government access to electronic data. In Tele2 Sverige AB v. Post, held:
“it is essential that access of the competent national authorities to retained data should, as a general rule, (...) be subject to a prior review carried out either by a court or by an independent administrative body, and that the decision of that court or body should be made following a reasoned request by those authorities submitted...”.
Unrestricted direct access to the data of innocent individuals using ridesharing apps, by its very nature, eradicates any consideration of proportionality and due process. Egypt must turn back from the dead-end path of unrestricted access, and uphold its international human rights obligations. Sensitive data demands strong legal protections, not an all-access pass. Hailing a rideshare should never include a blanket access for your government to follow you. We hope Egypt’s House of Representatives rejects the bill.