Lebanese Government Attempted To Gain Access to All Citizens’ Email, Social Media Passwords

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 6 2012 8:15 AM

Lebanese Government Attempted To Gain Access to All Citizens’ Email, Social Media Passwords

A Lebanese woman takes pictures with her mobile phone in 2008

Photo by JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not unusual for law enforcement agencies to monitor social network activity to gather intelligence and monitor threats. In Lebanon, however, authorities are reportedly trying to take things to a whole new level: by demanding access to all Lebanese citizens’ passwords for email and social media sites.

In October, Lebanon’s intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan died in what appears to be an assassination. The Information Branch of the country’s Internal Security Forces has been aggressively hunting those responsible—a pursuit that included, it has emerged, making a sweeping surveillance request that the country’s judicial authority rejected. Telecom minister Nicolas Sehnaoui told the Daily Star that, in an astonishing move, the security agency had demanded access to “the content of text messages from some 3.7 million Lebanese citizens” during a two-month period between September and November. Sehnaoui was also quoted saying the security agency had requested “all Lebanese citizens’ passwords for email and social media sites.”

Unsurprisingly, the reports have sparked a great deal of controversy. Beirut-born Nadim Kobeissi, the creator of an encrypted chat service called Cryptocat, wrote a blog post calling the demand for passwords “unacceptable” and encouraging Lebanese citizens to download his software as a alternative to Facebook. Writing in Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, journalist Hassan Chakrani described the request as a “dangerous precedent.” An anonymous security official has since tried to temper the outcry by denying the telecom minister’s statement about the request for the passwords (though he was happy to admit the demand for the text messages).


Given Lebanon’s history in this space, though, many in the country remain skeptical. Lebanon’s security agencies have previously been accused of abusing their authority to conduct wiretapping, fuelled by fears over how the tactic could be used illegally for political reasons. Since 2009 the issue has been simmering, after a high-level dispute over wiretapping as politicians grappled to address the tension between national security and privacy. The latest clash between the country’s judiciary and the Information Branch will reignite that debate. But even if the judiciary were to grant legal approval for the passwords and text messages, it’s not clear whether telecom companies in Lebanon would be capable of handing over the desired data. In the United States, for instance, cellphone companies only store text messages for a few days or weeks, if at all (which, incidentally, law enforcement agencies are looking to change).

The situation may be different in Lebanon, as the country’s two main mobile operators, Touch and Alfa, are state owned. However, even if the texts are sitting on a database somewhere, social network passwords would be held by the social network provider—so unless the security agency has installed sophisticated countrywide surveillance technology capable of spoofing encrypted https connections, the passwords would remain stored on servers belonging to, say, Facebook. And while it’s true Facebook has a dubious record on privacy, it’s hard to imagine even Mark Zuckerberg and co. handing over millions of passwords to a shady security agency in Lebanon.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.