Some time ago, the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces requested access to the phone information data of all Lebanese citizens; the government obliged. Now, they are demanding the content of all SMS, as well as usernames and passwords for services like BlackBerry Messenger and Facebook.
The Information Branch of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) has requested that the country’s Ministry of Telecommunications provide them with all SMS, or text messages, exchanged on Lebanese soil for the two months preceding the assassination of intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan .
This is in addition to other sensitive information, such as Internet usernames and passwords for sites like Facebook.
Security officials claim that such information will help them develop leads on who was behind the car bomb attack on the Information Branch head in the Achrafieh district of Beirut on 17 October 2012.
In response, communications minister Nicholas Sehnaoui refused the request. This is in line with Sehnaoui’s previous refusal of a similar request. The latter situation was resolved after a legal delegation was dispatched to France to determine the legality of such a step.
“When we consulted with our French counterparts about the legality of a full data disclosure, they told us that whoever reveals such information goes directly to jail,” the minister recalled.
“Even in those countries where such data is made available to the security forces, it is on a far smaller scale than what is being asked for in Lebanon,” he added.
He said that even in countries like Syria and Gaddafi’s Libya, the kind of information that the security forces could access was limited to the lines of communication – i.e., who called who – and the location of the caller.
Despite the widespread acceptance of such practices in the communications sector, the Information Branch nevertheless managed to get access to the communication data with permission from the government.
So will this intrusion on Lebanese citizens’ privacy be repeated with the SMS and Internet information?
“We have forwarded the matter to the cabinet, making our opposition clear, in addition to a negative ruling by the relevant judicial body,” Sehnaoui said.
“Despite what happens,” he added, “their request is but a confirmation that they want the contents of SMS messages that would expose all Lebanese, and not just the lines of communication as they had previously suggested.”
Over the past two years, the number of mobile phone users in Lebanon increased dramatically, reaching 3.7 million subscribers as of last month.
In addition to the SMS content request, the Information Branch is asking for something much more dangerous: private information related to Internet users, also under the pretext of looking for leads in the Hassan assassination.
“They want user data: the usernames and passwords of Lebanese who use the Internet in Lebanon, in addition to information about service providers and entry points to the Internet,” the minister warned.
“Surely, we cannot agree to making such information available and violate the privacy of Internet users,” he said. “I don’t believe that the cabinet will agree to such a request.”
Among the most important data that is being demanded by the authorities is that related to Facebook, which is used by a staggering 1.6 million in Lebanon.
Despite the dangerous precedent that the request sets, can the ministry actually provide such information?
“There is some data which can be collected by the ministry, but the rest must be gathered directly from the companies involved,” explained Sehnaoui. “The discussion shouldn’t revolve around this point, but rather on the principle of individual rights and privacy.”
It is likely that the Information Branch request will not be fully unravelled quickly, particularly as the Internet data issue complicates matters on both legal and practical fronts.
The minister concluded by saying: “Rather than requesting all the data, why don’t they ask themselves who is the criminal who would use his mobile phone to carry out an assassination? And is it justified to expose millions of Lebanese instead of taking preventative security measures?”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.