WhatsApp, Grindr and Facebook were once a place where gay, bisexual and trans Arabs could find freedom. Now their digital footprints could land them behind bars

By Maya Gebeily and Avi Asher-Schapiro

BEIRUT/LOS ANGELES, March 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Before leaving home in the morning, Omar carefully uninstalls the apps on his phone one by one — no WhatsApp, no Facebook, no Grindr.

“The paranoia is constant,” said the 19-year-old gay Egyptian, who asked the Thomson Reuters Foundation not to identify his hometown or real name for his safety.

If a policeman searched his phone, a single WhatsApp chat or Facebook selfie could be enough to see Omar prosecuted under laws banning ‘debauchery’ and ‘prostitution’ – routinely used in Egypt to criminalize citizens for are homosexual.

Wiping your phone has become a daily routine.

“It’s like brushing my teeth,” Omar said.

Around the world, marginalized communities fear that the internet is no longer a safe space for them because monitoring grows and the hate speech goes away unchecked.

An in-depth study of court records released on Monday found that police forces in Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon are increasingly relying on digital tools to identify, entrap and prosecute LGBTQ+ people – “increasing anti-terrorism surveillance.” -queer”.

Study by researcher Afsaneh Rigot, with support from data rights group Article 19 and Harvard Law School, reveals how the safety of LGBQT+ people in the Middle East can be compromised by their digital footprints .

Rigot reviewed redacted documents for 29 cases against LGBTQ+ people in Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon from 2011 to 2020, including gay men, lesbians, trans women and non-citizens, and interviewed nearly two dozen victims and defenders.

Authorities have used the presence of certain apps, images deemed “effeminate” and even innocuous conversations to prosecute people under a mix of anti-LGBTQ+ and cybercrime laws, according to its 130-page report.

Egyptian police have used undercover operations to trick people through dating apps, while authorities in Tunisia and Lebanon have imposed additional charges after searching detainees’ phones, he said.

Tunisia’s justice and interior ministries, the Egyptian interior ministry and the spokesperson for the Lebanese security forces did not respond to requests for comment.

The study found that the phones of LGBTQ+ people were treated as a virtual “crime scene” – treasure troves to be searched for “evidence”.

The official exploitation of suspects’ social media and messaging apps to build a case signals an alarming new trend, he said.

“Their identity is on trial,” Rigot said.

“To survive, queer people are forced to erase and hide key parts of themselves on the internet.”

EASIER TO PURSUE

In Lebanon, advocates have documented hundreds of cases of LGBTQ+ people charged with Article 534 of the penal code criminalizing “unnatural” sexual acts.

In Tunisia, “sodomy” is punishable by up to three years in prison, and police are increasingly classifying digital communications between LGBTQ+ people as online “misdemeanors”, the report notes.

Egyptian authorities have been the most aggressive in targeting the gay community, Rigot and other lawyers have found, with cases often referred to newly empowered “economic courts” that prosecute the “misuse” of telecommunications.

Egyptian police are “targeting gay hotspots…just arresting random people based on their appearance and…searching their phones and if they find anything…they use it as evidence to further the case,” said one. victim interviewed in the report.

“Many countries now apply cybercrime laws in these cases, as opposed to anti-LGBT laws,” said Rasha Younes, who studies LGBTQ+ rights in the region for Human Rights Watch.

These tactics destroyed the “wiggle room” the online world had given gay people in largely homophobic societies, she said, describing the impact as “absolutely devastating”.

Omar in Egypt says he lives a double life. He never talks about being gay on WhatsApp, uses fake names on all dating apps, would never meet a romantic interest online in person, and avoids neighborhoods where police can set up checkpoints.

“I have to live like a spy,” he said. “Hardly anyone knows who I really am.”

DESIGN FAULTS

With Tunisia in political upheaval, Lebanon in financial crisis and Egypt widely curtailing civil liberties, advocates in each country said comprehensive legal reform was unlikely.

Instead, LGBTQ+ organizations and lawyers are advising communities to wipe their devices regularly, offering advice on digital safety, and winning lawsuits over technical issues.

“I tell my clients, ‘don’t leave anything on your phone – always assume the phone will be confiscated,'” said Youmna Makhlouf in Lebanon who has defended LGBTQ+ people in court.

Tunisian lawyer Alaa Khameri said he secured acquittals or deferred convictions against LGBTQ+ people by showing that searches of phones and laptops were carried out without a warrant.

“Lawyers use this lack of permission and authorization as our legal defense,” he said.

The report also said there was “corporate complicity in pursuing LGBTQ people in Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia,” meaning the apps also shared some responsibility.

Each of those interviewed by Rigot mentioned popular messaging platform WhatsApp as potentially exposing them, and the report found that screenshots of it were used to try to prove someone was LGBTQ+ in the near future. of 30 cases.

“Most of the apps we use are not designed for gay people in a high-risk environment,” said Ramy Raoof, an Egyptian privacy expert. “It forces gay people to become digital security experts on their own.”

Some companies have taken action.

WhatsApp offers vanishing messages and end-to-end encrypted backups for added security, its public policy officer Kathryn Harnett said.

“When you design with the groups most at risk in mind, it benefits everyone,” she said.

Grindr has rolled out several features, including locked screenshots, routine security notices, and a version of the dating app that can be installed discreetly, some tailored to specific high-risk countries.

“We’ve taken it upon ourselves to try to reduce the amount of evidence available to the police as much as possible,” said Grindr’s equality director Jack Harrison.

He said companies should constantly update their tools to protect vulnerable users, but not completely retreat from dangerous places.

“The benefits of providing the space and opportunity for queer people to connect far outweigh the risks,” he said.

Rigot agreed that LGBTQ+ and mainstream apps are key connecting bridges in environments that can be hostile and lonely.

“It’s a vibrant and beautiful online community,” she said, but added that platforms could ensure the safety of all users by prioritizing the most vulnerable.

“Technology is not neutral in this context.”

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(Reporting by Avi Asher-Schapiro in Los Angeles and Maya Gebeily in Beirut, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world struggling to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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