Future Tense

In Lebanon, Apps Let You Get Someone Else’s Personal Info With Ease

A Lebanese woman talks on her mobile phone.

Photo by JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

This piece originally appeared in New America’s Weekly Wonk.

A friend of mine was driving her car in Beirut, ignoring a man hitting on her from his car. After taking a different road after a few minutes of being pestered, she received a call from the very same guy. She tried to remain polite and end the call as quickly as possible, but before she could hang up, he mentioned the fact that he found out her address from examining her license plate number.

He could have gotten much more. In Lebanon, if you want to find out the name, address, phone number, and other personal data—even blood type—of a car owner, all one must do is install an app via an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad and enter a license plate number. Apple has removed these apps from iTunes, but new apps, CDs, and even a new website now exist to share the same information.

It’s not legal, but lawyer Hassan Khalife says no one has ever been prosecuted for the breaches of privacy, saying that it’s just not a priority for Ministry of the Interior.

Internet access has been increasing tremendously in the post-revolution era in the Arab region and has been touted as a tool for democracy ever since Tahrir Square. Growth in Internet users in the Arab states has grown more than anywhere else in the world, expanding five-fold in eight years.

But this rapid Internet adoption is not being matched with legislation or enforcement, exposing users to new threats.

In Lebanon, where I’m from, mobile phone penetration has reached 92 percent—the highest in the region—and Internet infiltration has increased to 52 percent. Legislators have yet to adopt policies that ensure higher levels of privacy, though it’s been widely debated among political leaders.

Much like the U.S. Constitution, the Lebanese Constitution doesn’t specifically define the right to privacy, said lawyer Tony Mikhael from the Maharat Foundation—a team of Lebanese journalists committed to defending and promoting free expression. But, some provisions prevent the exposure of people’s personal lives in specific situations. Mikhael points to Article 17:  “The place of residence is inviolable. No one may enter it except in the circumstances and manners prescribed by law.”

But a phone is not a home. Even though an eavesdropping law states: “Citizens have the right to privacy by any means of communication locally and internationally through wired and wireless,” the cabinet recently granted the Internal Security Forces access to all communication user data. This action revealed the data of 4 million subscribers. There wasn’t even a fight from the telecoms because the two mobile operators—Alfa and Touch—are owned by the government.

“I am against what my government is doing. They should be protecting our privacy, not the opposite,” said Abir Ghattas (A Lebanese activist and blogger). “They claim the need to access terrorists data. Are 4 million citizens considered terrorists?”

Ghattas also raised questions about the privacy of the Internet network. The ISP Ogero is a state-owned monopoly whose role includes (as mentioned on its website) operations, maintenance, sales, marketing, billing, and management of the Ministry of Telecommunication’s fixed network. With more Lebanese citizens using Internet than not, there is no clear indicator on how this entity is protecting users’ data and under which laws. Ogero has some internal decrees it should obey, but it’s not clear to which master Ogero has to answer, the citizenry or the government.

Further, according to Imad Hoballah, chairman of Lebanon’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, there is almost no cybersecurity in Lebanon. It’s not clear who controls our data inside Ogero, and Hoballah says Lebanon’s telecom networks, information, and communications technology networks, are completely open to all kinds of terrorist attacks, and have little, if any, monitoring for criminal activity, including pedophilia.

If we in the developing world surrender our rights, that will allow repressive regimes to react to openness with fear and draconian laws. As the White House releases its report on Big Data, with the lessons of the Snowden affair fresh upon us, we need to come together to set global norms to privacy and ensure that all citizens are protected equally.