Surveillance made in France
25 november 2021
“Happy birthday” greetings pour in on Ahmed Alaa’s phone. On October 1, 2017, sitting in the back of a taxi in the small town of Damietta, Egypt, the student, who has just turned 22, sends out emojis and text messages to his friends. Suddenly, a man knocks on the window: “Identity card!” Plainclothes officers surround the vehicle, walkie-talkies in hand, pull him out roughly and take him away in their van. Destination unknown. “For a second I thought it was a prank”, he tells Disclose. “I didn’t think I could ever be kidnapped like that, in the middle of the street”. He was imprisoned, without any form of trial.At the time, the regime accused him of posting a photo on the Internet of himself under a rainbow flag, the symbol of the LGBT community, at an underground rock concert in Cairo on 22 September. A photo that went viral on the web in Egypt led to the young man being accused by the regime of “immorality” and belonging to an “illegal group”. After 80 days in detention, he was released without further explanation, physically and psychologically broken. He packed his bags and fled the country for Toronto, Canada, where Disclose met him to talk at length.
Sitting in the Canadian living room of friends who are refugees like him, he recalls the events. The official media broadcasting his face over and over again on TV, the threats on social networks, and then the few days in hiding in a small town far from Cairo, where he thought he was safe. “When the police arrested me, I soon realised that my phone had been tapped and my social network activity monitored. No one can escape them… ”
In Egypt, arms giant Dassault, a subsidiary of Thales, and the company Nexa Technologies sold a mass surveillance system to the dictatorship of Field Marshal Sisi. With the blessing of the French state.
65,000 opponents in prison
Political opponents, journalists, NGO leaders, homosexuals, strikers… For the past five years, all those who do not think or live according to the precepts of the military regime have risked imprisonment – nearly 65,000 opponents are reportedly languishing in the regime’s jails, while 3,000 others have “disappeared” after being arrested, according to the US State Department. An unprecedented repression of Egyptian civil society facilitated by a massive cyber-surveillance system installed by three French companies, with the tacit agreement of the authorities.
The first, called Nexa Technologies, is run by the founders of Amesys, a company accused of supplying surveillance equipment to the Gaddafi dictatorship in Libya. The second, Ercom-Suneris – a subsidiary of Thales since 2019 – is known to be responsible for the security of one of Emmanuel Macron’s mobile phones. The third is none other than Dassault Systèmes, the technology subsidiary of the French arms industry heavyweight and manufacturer of the Rafale aircraft. When contacted, Ercom-Suneris and Dassault Systèmes did not answer our questions.
According to our investigation, in partnership with Télérama magazine, these three technology companies came together in 2014 around a project to monitor the population outside normal boundaries. An Egyptian equivalent of the NSA , dictatorship style: Nexa Technologies was in charge of installing an Internet surveillance software called “Cerebro” and Ercom-Suneris a phone tapping and geolocation device called “Cortex vortex” .
“We always deploy our solutions in full transparency and in contact with the French authorities and intelligence services “
Management of Nexa Technologies
The last piece of this massive spying construct was an ultra-powerful search engine manufactured by Dassault Système. According to our information, Exalead, as it is known, made it possible to link various databases together on behalf of the MID, the regime’s opaque military intelligence service.
To consolidate the power he acquired by force in July 2013, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi could count on two important allies. On the one hand, the French state, one of his main Western partners, which provided diplomatic, military and commercial support. And the United Arab Emirates, on the other hand, which, according to our information, would put €150 million on the table in 2013 to offer Field Marshal Sisi the missing element for his repressive arsenal: digital espionage. The Gulf State involved a subsidiary of Etimad , the Emirati leader in cyber defence. It was this partner that would offer cyber-surveillance “made in France” the opportunity of accessing the heart of power, the Egyptian Ministry of Defence. “The order from the Egyptian government came to us through an Emirati company that contacted us and told us about the requirements”, the management of Nexa Technologies, the first to get involved, confirmed in writing.
The French SME had a major advantage: since 2012 it had had a commercial arm based in the Emirates, Advanced Middle East Systems. “This creation was done with the greatest transparency of information with the French services”, Nexa Technologies still asserts. On 24 March 2014, its directors, Stéphane Salies and Olivier Bohbot, won an €11.4 million contract to install its flagship software, Cerebro, in Cairo. According to a confidential document obtained by Disclose, Cerebro is said to be able to “analyse data to understand the relationships and behaviour of suspects, going back in time to find relevant information in billions of recorded conversations”. The contract was called “Toblerone”, after the Swiss chocolate in the shape of a pyramid.
In the wake of this, Stéphane Salies, Nexa’s CEO, advised the Emiratis to bring in Ercom-Suneris. Jackpot. In the summer of 2014, Pierre-Mayeul Badaire, Ercom’s CEO, signed a contract for nearly €15 million to spy on phones up and down the Nile. The Egyptian military was primarily interested in one feature: geolocating their targets in real time using their Cortex Vortex software. “It’s like a spy movie”, explains a former Ercom engineer, speaking on condition of anonymity. “You can geolocate a person by triangulating the position of the base stations which their phone is connected to, even without them making any calls”. An even more intrusive device than Nexa’s. What is the view of Thales, which bought Ercom-Suneris in 2019 and which is 25.6% held by the French state? When contacted, the French group did not wish to “answer the questionnaire” sent by Disclose.
According to our information, Dassault Systèmes was involved in the project at the same time as its two counterparts. As the owner of Exalead, an ultra-powerful search engine, the group was, it seems, the ideal partner to centralise the millions of pieces of information collected by the French SMEs and the regime, which made the digital database of Egyptian identity cards and passports available to it. According to our information, employees of the group travelled to Cairo five times between October 2015 and the end of 2016 to supervise the installation of Exalead. Egyptian intelligence officers were also trained in Paris.To ensure that the system would do its job perfectly, the dictatorship did not skimp on the equipment: brand new data centres, latest generation Dell computers, “megaservers” from the American company DDN…In Alexandria, the military also had electronic components  installed on the submarine cables linking the country to the Internet network to better monitor it. As for the command centre of this future “Egyptian NSA”, it was located in Cairo, on the Almaza military base, 10 km from the presidential palace.
STATE-APPROVED DEPLOYMENTIn order to have a free hand in Egypt, French cyber surveillance experts had to seek the approval of the French state and its dual-use goods control unit (SBDU). In other words, control of civilian technologies that could be misused for military or repressive purposes. Such as surveillance software.In July 2014, the SBDU, under the authority of Emmanuel Macron, then Minister of the Economy, was applied to by Nexa Technologies as part of the “Toblerone” contract. According to the file submitted to the SBDU and obtained by Disclose, the company mentioned a “provision of services [to Egypt] related to the implementation of a legal IP interception system in the context of the fight against terrorism and crime”. The contract included 550 days of installation and 200 hours of training.Officially, Advanced Middle East Systems, Nexa’s UAE subsidiary, was selling the system. The parent company would only be covering its deployment. The SBDU was clearly reassured and considered that the case did not require further investigation. On 10 October 2014, it stamped the application “not subject” in the bottom right-hand corner. Apparently, the Ministry of the Economy saw no problem in exporting Cerebro software to one of the most repressive countries in the world. When contacted by Disclose, the Ministry indicated that it did not wish to communicate on this subject.In the autumn of 2014, it was Ercom-Suneris’ turn to ask for the State’s agreement to export its wiretapping system: it got a “favourable” stamp.
The National Security Agency, the US intelligence service, has organised massive surveillance of global telecommunications, as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
“If the French state had had the slightest doubt about the supply of [Cerebro] to the Egyptian state, it would have refused export of the technology and opposed the sale,” Nexa Technologies’ management explains today. At the time of writing, only Nexa has agreed to answer the questions raised by our survey. The reason for this unprecedented statement is to be found in the crimes against humanity unit of the Paris public prosecutor’s office: since 2017, following our partner’s revelations, the justice system has opened a judicial investigation against Nexa and its management for “complicity in acts of torture and enforced disappearance” in Libya and Egypt. According to our information, on 12 October 2021, Nexa Technologie was indicted for “complicity in torture and enforced disappearance in Egypt between 2014 and 2021”. On 17 June, Stéphane Salies and Olivier Bohbot were indicted. To date, Ercom-Suneris and Dassault Systèmes have decided to opt for a strategy of keeping silent.
Jean-Pierre Canet, Mathias Destal, Ariane Lavrilleux, Geoffrey Livolsi