Entrapped! How to use a phone app to destroy a life

Love in the age of Grindr. From http://media.giphy.com/

Love in the age of Grindr and Tinder. From http://media.giphy.com/

NOTE: For advice on how to avoid police entrapment and protect yourself on the Internet, see here (in Arabic) or here (in English and Arabic). For important information (in Arabic) on your legal rights if you’re arrested in Egypt for being gay or trans, see here. 

Here’s news from Cairo. On September 8, El Watan reported that the morals police, “under the direction of Major General Ahmed el Shafie,” caught a “bodybuilding trainer” who also served as bodyguard to famous actors and singers. He was “practicing sexual perversion [shuzooz] with a rich Arab man in an apartment in Doqqi” (a tony neighborhood where many Arabs from the Gulf live). Investigations showed “that the accused Salah A. , a bodyguard, set up a page for himself on a social media website, to offer himself for sexual perversion with men who want to practice debauchery [fugur] for prices as high as LE 2000″ – about US $250.

Major General Amgad el-Shafie, from a 2014 TV interview

Major General Amgad el-Shafie, from a 2014 TV interview

The same day, Al Youm al-Sabbah (or Youm7), a scandal site that runs stories leaked by cops, announced that the morals division of the Tourism and Antiquities Police – which patrols hotels and tourist sites — “has captured two sexual perverts while they practiced debauchery with two men from the Gulf inside two famous hotels in Zamalek and downtown Cairo.” Major General Ahmed Mustafa Shaheen, Tourist Police head, took credit for the case; one of the arresting officers was Colonel Ahmed Kishk — remember that name. In a posh Zamalek caravanserai they stopped “Fathy A., 24,” leaving “the room of a guest from the Gulf area.” On his IPhone they found a “conversation program which allows him to identify those close to him,” and evidence that he had sex for 1000 LE a shot. He is in jail, and was subjected to a forensic anal examination. The second miscreant, “Mahmoud A., 23,” was “found practicing debauchery with a person from the Gulf in exchange for 800 LE, in another hotel in downtown Cairo.” He too is in the police lockup.  A transgender friend of mine knows one of the hotel arrestees, and says he identifies as a “ladyboy,” a slang term in Cairo for men who play against gender roles.

of the Tourism and Antiquities Police meets with officers at a meeting this month about protecting archeological sites; photo from Youm7

Major General Ahmed Mustafa Shaheen of the Tourism and Antiquities Police meets his minions, at a confab this month about protecting archeological sites; photo from Youm7

It doesn’t make sense. Youm7’s explanation for the arrests beggars belief; “secret sources” pointed police to “two men who look suspicious and are unstable in their behavior and the way they talk,” headed for “two rooms of two different customers from the Gulf area,” in two hotels in two different neighborhoods. Quelle coïncidence! And why were the young Egyptians jailed while the Gulf Arabs went scot-free, in a country that’s declared its intention to crack down on gay foreigners? Under Egyptian law, both parties should be culpable. (See the note at the end for a summary of Egypt’s law on sex work and homosexual conduct.)

I know why the Gulfies weren’t jailed. The Gulfies didn’t exist. The IPhones, the evanescing clients, suggest the real story: the police impersonated rich Gulf Arabs online, to lure victims to a meeting and arrest them.

Between 2001 and 2004, police entrapped hundreds, probably thousands, of gay Egyptian men over the Internet, in a massive crackdown. Since 2013, arrests of suspected LGBT people burgeoned again in Egypt; most victims were seized at home or on the streets, yet rumors circulated that cops had returned to the Web for entrapment. But there was no proof — till this summer. On June 8, police arrested a Syrian refugee in Messaha Square in Doqqi; they’d arranged to meet him over Growlr. An appeals court overturned his one-year sentence, but, flouting legal protections for refugees, the Ministry of Interior deported him anyway. A month later, seemingly under similar circumstances, Doqqi police arrested an Italian national who had lived in Egypt for six years. A court eventually dismissed the charges, but, under pressure, he left the country. The latest cases show not just foreigners but Egyptians are targets of the snares.

Internet entrapment is cruel — and successful — because it feeds on solitude. The police arrest you not because you’re dancing at a party or cruising on the street, but because, on the apparent privacy of a flickering screen, you express a need. Your crime isn’t hurting someone but being vulnerable to hurt. I know a great deal about Internet entrapment; more, I think, than almost anybody except the police who do it. I don’t have the victims’ permission to detail this summer’s cases; but I’ve interviewed dozens of men arrested in the 2001-2004 crackdown, and studied dozens of police files from the same period. I’ve documented entrapment cases in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and several countries in sub-Saharan Africa. You want to learn how to do it? Here’s what I know.

Cartoon by Peter Steiner, from the New Yorker, July 5, 1993; this is reportedly the New Yorker's most-reproduced cartoon ever

Cartoon by Peter Steiner, from the New Yorker, July 5, 1993: reportedly, the New Yorker’s most-reproduced cartoon ever

I. Truth and consequences. In the huge crackdown from 2001-2004, massively publicized arrests in gathering places — like the Queen Boat raid — made gay men avoid the sites where they could meet face-to-face. They turned to the Internet; and there, in their isolation, police could pick them off one by one. The current crackdown follows the same script. Last year, police harassment devastated the downtown café scene, shuttering spots where LGBT people had been welcome. (After padlocking one coffee bar popular among gays, police announced to the press that they had quashed an “atheists’ café,” a “place for Satan worship, rituals and dances.”) Nobody goes out anymore; they stay home and log in. Any time I’m with a group of gays in Cairo, the peculiar cooing sound of Grindr alerts, like pigeons masturbating, semicolons the hushed conversations.

Egyptians want the same range of things from dating apps as people anywhere: talk, touch, raunch, rapport, money, undying love. Where threats pervade the world outside, though, people want safety, as much a sexual as an emotional need. Dating apps give a dangerous simulacrum of security. You believe you’re safe, because you can hide who you are. You’re not safe, because others can do the same.

From Girl Comics #1,

From Girl Comics #1, “A Brief Rendezvous”

Dating apps are games of truth. They’re full of people seeking truth with desperate sincerity while trying to avoid telling it. The first rule is: Everybody lies. You lie as much as you can to make a better self for yourself — but not so much that, if a meeting happens, the other will be let down. (Don’t say you’re 25 and look like Channing Tatum if you’re 55 and look like Chris Christie.) The second rule is: Winning means not being lied to. It means meeting someone who tells you the truth; it means sustaining your invented self which staying the one less deceived. The game’s unstable, off-center, because these rules are irreconcilable.

But there’s one catch, one secret: If the police are playing, the policeman always wins. His avidity to listen, meet, and love trumps the diffidence other, lukewarm suitors show. The cop can lie as much as he likes, without fear of a rendezvous exploding his persona; you’re not going to storm away saying, “But you’re not 25,” because you’ll be in handcuffs. And he doesn’t care how many lies you tell; all that matters is getting the one fact from you, a confession that you’re gay — the evidence that makes you criminal. For ordinary players, you’d need the intricate algorithms of game theory to calculate the winning balance of truth and fiction. But streamlined rules govern the policeman’s game; only one truth counts. Once he has that, he’s won; your loss is final.

In a game of needs, the simplest, most economical need conquers. Most gay men believe the online world is liberating. But the game is rigged for the police. The ersatzness of that world, its imitation freedom, collapses like cardboard when a policeman commences play. After that, only he can win.

2. Trust and betrayal. Before you entrap someone, they have to trust you enough to talk to you and meet you. Most people online in Egypt want to believe there’s someone real out there, someone less prone to fiction than they are; naive desire renders entrapment easy. Still, the policeman needs skills: some English (required to navigate many apps and websites — plus, much chat is partly anglicized); some knowledge of gay slang and the gay world. It’s not a combination many cops have.

The Mugamma looms over Midan Tahrir

The Mugamma looms over Midan Tahrir

There are certainly officers who prowl the LGBT Internet. They’re in the morals division of the Cairo police, headquartered atop the Mugamma, the vast Stalinist bureaucrats’ sarcophagus on Midan Tahrir. (In 2001-2004, cops entrapped gay men from elsewhere in the country — but always by asking them to come to Cairo, for convenient arrest.) I’m convinced, though, they employ civilian gay informers as well.

Morals police in Egypt, like elsewhere, have always cultivated informers. The gay ones were mostly working-class guys, doing it for a little money and immunity from arrest. Sometimes, in seasons when the cops hungered for baksheesh, police would take an informer in a microbus round the cruising areas; he’d point to the known khawalat, or faggots, on the streets and they’d be loaded in the van, beaten, jailed. The gays even gave some famous informers nicknames; “Mohammed Laila Elwi,” dubbed for a movie actress, probably got hundreds arrested. In 2003, with an Egyptian colleague, I went to talk to Taha Embaby, then the dreaded head of the Cairo morals division, in his office in Abdin police station. On a sofa in his anteroom sat two fey young men, obviously there to give reports. As we stood quivering with trepidation, one cocked his wrist flirtatiously at me. “Welcome to Egypt,” he said.

But in 2001-2004, for Internet entrapment, police developed a new cadre of informers, with cyber-skills, not street smarts. Sometimes these exhibited frightening cunning. In one case, police entrapped a man who worked at the Cairo Opera House. His Internet chats with his nemesis,  preserved in the police file I read, chilled me: they showed an agent, calling himself “Raoul,” with deep musical knowledge and dark humor — as if the cops, like a dating site, had matched the informer to the victim. They asked each other their favorite operas. Tosca, said the victim-to-be, but the agent named “Die Fledermaus”: Johann Strauss’ story of deception and entrapment, its last scene set in a jail. He added that he loved Dialogues des Carmélitesan opera by the (gay) composer Francis Poulenc: a work almost unknown in Egypt, one that also ends, grimly, in a prison cell. As they set up the meeting that led to the arrest, their dialogues grew double-edged:

Raoul: and I promise u 2 things
Incubus: which r?
Raoul: first I will make u so happy
Raoul: second u will never forget me

Isabel Leonard (R) and Elizabeth Bishop in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Dialogues des Carmélites. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence: Isabel Leonard (R) and Elizabeth Bishop in a Metropolitan Opera production of Dialogues des Carmélites. Photo: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

The informers often used the name “Raoul” in 2001-2004. Raoul frequently said he was French or Spanish — police grasped that many Egyptian gays trusted foreigners more than fellow countrymen. In some incarnations, he clearly wasn’t what he claimed. (One court file showed “Raoul” chatting with two young gay men. When he explained he was from Spain, one of the men excitedly announced he studied Spanish. Es usted de Madrid? ¿Qué estás haciendo en Egipto? Raoul retreated: No, no, better English for now. They went to meet him anyway.) But some playing the “Raoul” role were perhaps more truthful. I suspected police were blackmailing a gay foreigner living in Cairo, possibly one they’d gotten on drug charges or some other grave offense. It evinced the trouble they were willing to take to entrap a few hundred gay men.

The cops themselves were like cops everywhere: eager to make arrests, but lazy. They met their victims as close to police stations as possible, to minimize the walk. Often the rendezvous was in front of the Hardee’s in Midan Tahrir, across the street from the Mugamma. These days, police in Doqqi seem to specialize in entrapment; they like to meet victims in Midan Messaha, three easy blocks from the Doqqi police station.

 Friendly Doqqi police doing their patriotic propaganda duty: Cops hand candy to passersby in front of the Doqqi police station, to celebrate Sisi’s Suez Canal opening on August 5

3. Innocence and evidence. The one thing police want is proof of their victims’ guilt: which means getting them to confess to at least one sexual experience they’ve already had. Tender, attentive, and inquisitive, the informers pry this information out like gold fillings from teeth.

In early 2002, “Wael Samy” (another name informers often used) answered a personals ad placed by Zaki, a lonely 23-year-old from a provincial city. They started exchanging emails, often in English, and Wael lured Zaki into describing the one time he’d had sex:

Dearest Wael, It is always so fulfilling to hear from you ‘cause your e-mails are full of sincere emotions and feelings although they are always too short. I am also so happy to know that my emails give you such pleasure. …

Well, this time, as you’ve requested, I’ll try to give you an account of what happened during my first and only sex experience which happened about six years ago, hoping you can e-mail me with yours next time.

Zaki fell in love with Wael at a distance, and went to Cairo to meet him. The e-mail was the key item of evidence at his trial. He spent three years in prison.

Spies in our midst: Graphic from El-Watan, 2014

Spies among us: Graphic from El-Watan, 2014

But police also try to extract confessions after arrest. In the past, they’ve used a sadistic trick. If the informer had claimed to be a foreigner (“Dennis” or “Sevensen,” like “Raoul,” were common aliases), police at the Mugamma`would tell the terrified prisoner he’d been arrested because he’d spoken with a spy. Menaced with an espionage charge, the innocent captive would protest that they’d only talked about sex. Fine, the cops would say. Just tell us all about your gay life in writing and we’ll let you go. One victim told me:

The officer who interrogated me claimed [he was] a State Security officer. He said that all he wanted was for me to confess that I was gay. He said this is “personal freedom” and that if I confessed they would inform State Security and let me go immediately.

“Amgad,” a young doctor from upper Egypt whom I interviewed after his release from prison in 2003, told me the police

asked me how long I had known [the man I chatted with] … They told me this guy was an Israeli spy. They said he would have sex with me, then take photographs of me and then threaten me and make me work for Israel. … I told them all about my gay life, such as it was—the friendships I had made over the Internet and why they were important to me. Then they looked at each other and said something like, “We will make this only a personal relationship case.” Now I realize how funny they thought it was to lead me on this way.

The thing is, they didn’t blink. They didn’t feel that doing this would destroy a whole life. They caught me because I am gay, but they didn’t even think that my future could be destroyed. I am not rich, I cannot leave the country or start my life over. … And they didn’t feel anything. Anything. Can you understand what they were thinking? I cannot.

b86cefbf-3753-4937-95dc-62696d57cd8f4. Motives. It’s the cops’ motives I mean. Today as much as in 2001-2004, the Egyptian criminal justice system’s ignorance about the Internet is stunning. Back in 2003, one defendant told how at his trial, the judge

wasn’t sure what a website was, or what “chat” was, and he was puzzled by the difference between chatting with someone over the phone and over the Internet.

Another told me, “All of them—the judges, the lawyers, even the niyaba [prosecutor]—knew nothing about the Internet. The deputy prosecutor even said, ‘I know nothing about the Internet and I don’t have time to learn about it. What is it? What do you do on it? Do people just sit around and talk with men?'”

Things haven’t changed much. Most judges know how to send e-mail by now, and some cops even have Facebook pages. But the technical side of cyberspace mostly leaves them baffled. And this makes the Internet a source of fear. It terrifies the state itself. Police pursue “perversion” on the Internet not because they’re scared of perversion, but because they’re scared of the Internet and its capacity to spread it.

The Internet arrived in Egypt in 1993; by the early 2000s, it had nearly half a million users. In 2002, the government introduced “free” dial-up access (costing ordinary phone rates), opening the Web to anyone with a landline. With the advent of wireless, sold through Egypt’s giant telecommunications companies, technology leapt ahead of the state’s capacity for control. Faced with a Facebook- and Twitter-powered revolution in January 2011, the government proved unable to monitor or block individual websites; its only recourse was to shut down the whole Internet for days — and even then, intrepid activists circumvented the wall. Successive regimes absorbed the lesson. Information flow could be an mortal foe; survival could hinge on subduing it.

From InternetSociety.org, based on World Bank data

From InternetSociety.org, based on World Bank data

The Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) estimates that internet users in Egypt more than tripled from 15 million in 2009 to 48 million in early 2015. Smartphones — required for using most apps — have spread more slowly. In 2012, smartphone penetration was lower than almost anywhere else in the Middle East. This is changing, though. Sony reportedly expects smartphones to make up 32% of mobile sales in Egypt by next year — still low (worldwide, they account for more than 2/3 of sales) but rising swiftly.

High price and exclusivity make smartphones even more potent status symbols in Egypt than elsewhere. They’re a tool of communication, but also a tool for the upper-class and upwardly mobile to convey their insulation from the world. To be sure, plenty of poor people save for months to buy a Samsung, but that’s because possession conveys membership in a virtual gated community, like the real walled wealth reserves that mushroom in exurban Cairo. This adds to the false feeling of safety enshrouding the promised anonymity of the Internet.

But the government attacks anonymity on every front. Most obviously it fears the Internet’s political uses. ANHRI notes that “the role the internet played in the political changes over the past years … drove more and more users to social media.” Twitter users, for instance, multiplied tenfold between 2012 and 2015. And lots of Egyptians talk politics on the Internet — about twice the percentage that do in the rest of the world. Moreover, with Sisi’s draconian censorship of print media, Facebook and Twitter and a few doggedly independent websites are where Egyptians turn for accurate rather than airbrushed news.

The state responds by suppressing, scaring, spying. A brutal draft “cyber-crime” law provides life imprisonment for “harming public order; endangering safety and security or society; endangering the life and security of citizens; preventing authorities from undertaking their duties,” as well as “harming national unity or societal peace” and “defaming a heavenly religion.” The pretext is “terrorism”; the target is any dissent. Already the government has imposed harsh prison terms for unwanted — in particular, atheist — Facebook posts or pages. (Last month a court rejected a Sisi supporter’s lawsuit demanding a complete ban on Facebook. It urged “self-censorship” instead.) Meanwhile Sisi’s regime has sought, and bought, technology from sinister corporate suppliers to enable surveillance of virtually every keystroke on the Internet. No one knows just how deep the state’s current invasions of cyber-privacy go.

on-the-internet-nobody-knows-youre-a-dog-except-the-NSA

Egypt has aimed very little of this high-tech surveillance machinery at sex or dating apps — so far. In truth, most dating apps are extremely vulnerable to surveillance. Last year, analysts found flaws in Grindr’s geolocation service, the one that lets you know which cruisees are near you; anybody adept at exploiting the errors could pinpoint a user’s exact location down to a meter or two. Some (but seemingly not all) of the problems were patched, and Grindr disabled geolocation for some worst-case countries, including Egypt. But other problems persist. For one thing, most dating apps don’t offer users an SSL (Secure Socket Layer, or https://) connection — one that encrypts communication between your device and their servers. Moreover (I’m quoting the security mavens at Tactical Tech), with most dating apps,

  • Downloading the apps from the Appstore or Google Play will link them directly to your Apple ID or Google account;
  • Your mobile operator will also collect this information, linking it directly to your identity;
  • Other social networking apps installed on your mobile device such as Facebook or Twitter may also collect this information about you.
Geolocation and its discontents: From cartoon.called.life on Instagram

Geolocation and its discontents: From cartoon.called.life on Instagram

Yet Egypt’s police haven’t taken full advantage of this porousness; so far as I know, they’ve relied on crude flesh-and-blood informers to entrap Grindr’s and Growlr’s users. I suspect there’s a knife-fight among Egypt’s police branches to access the technology and training — and money — for Internet surveillance. And the sex cops haven’t been a priority so far; the thugs surrounding Sisi care far more about sites dealiing in expressly political dissent than they do about dates or hookups.

This too may be changing. The more arrests the morals police make, the more they can argue that Internet sex is a security issue. Persecution of gay foreigners can only bolster that contention — and as that expands, State Security officers seem to be upping their involvement in the cases. Think Rentboy. Last month, US Homeland Security dropped its hot pursuit of mad bombers and terror cells to bust an innocuous website for male sex workers, ostensibly because it aided “trafficking.” The anxieties in play were indistinguishable from those in Egypt: fears of money, bodies, identities, and information flowing over the Web and across borders, out of control. Similarly, when Cairo journalist Mona Iraqi led a ludicrous, brutal raid on an alleged gay bathhouse in December, she justified the inhumanity as a war against “human trafficking.” The online world is already a danger zone for LGBT Egyptians, but there may be worse to come.

5. In conclusion. Gay men’s cruising is intimately interwoven with urban history, with the power to spin new narratives out of opportunities for lingering, loitering, delay. Cruising is connected to the figure of the flaneur pausing at shopwindows and interrogating glances, to existence in the city as a story full of forking paths, to the streets as sites of mystery and concealment amid displays and crowds.

Yum. This is a much more attractive label than the old ones.

Yum. This is a much more attractive label than the old ones.

I remember walking once through Bucharest with a gay Romanian friend in 1993. Only a few years after the Revolution, Romanian cities were still drab, vacant. Clothing stores all sold the same clothes, state food shops held aisle on aisle of canned carp in oil — crap în ulei, self-descriptive. Suddenly, on gray Bulevardul Bălcescu, we realized a young man with sculpted hair was staring at us. We followed him, tentatively. Then we lost him — then realized he was following us. We carried on a hunt or dance for an hour or so, as he paused at store windows, stared furtively into the grimed glass, flicked an eyelid our way, flurried on. My friend, expert enough at cruising dark public parks, had never experienced anything like this in downtown Bucharest. I understood that day the advent of something new in the disused city, an ambulatory eroticism that would transfigure seeing and the sidewalks, something reflected in a few scrubbed panes, flowering in the first buds of consumer culture; new desires and new ways for them to occupy the streets. (I thank George Iacobescu, who became my friend that day, for offering the lesson.)

All I can say is, Grindr’s different. Playing on dating apps is interesting and erotic, but it isn’t ambulatory or open. A call-and-response rhythm drives the dating app. It starts the moment you sign up, when you clarify yourself in detail, on a form, not only for your peers but for the corporation’s benefit. Once your identity’s set, interrogations continue. Conversations are quick arousing inquisitions, the question-and-answer form unvarying as a coxswain or a tragic chorus. This isn’t cruising; it’s a catechism. Like religious catechisms, it’s a mechanism by which power forces you to state your faith, define your self as one declines a noun. The apps police us; they force us to confess, even though temptation constrains us, not a clumsy truncheon. No wonder it’s a perfect playing ground for the police — the police are already there. They come built in. Intensifying this is the effect of speed. Ten years ago, on static personals sites, you could write long answers, even switch to the horse-and-buggy hebetude of e-mail. Now everything goes triple-time; urgent antiphonies rush you on, no time to dally, every decision’s instant. The race erodes judgment, and it’s that much easier for the cops to get what they want from you — the name, the sex story, the date for the meeting.

No wonder everybody lies so much on apps; it’s their way of resisting the drumbeat demand that you define yourself. It preserves space for secrecy and invention — only a space too fragile to withstand the police. Every time I fill out a form on one of these things I recall Foucault. “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.” And fuck.

Cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez, from the New Yorker, February 23, 2015

Cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez, from the New Yorker, February 23, 2015

At the beginning, I mentioned Colonel Ahmed Kishk, who helped arrest the hapless victims in hotels. As soon as I read that, I recognized the name; it took a few days to remember everything. Twelve years ago, Colonel Kishk presided over the arrests of thirteen gay men who used a flat in Giza for occasional sex. There was no Internet entrapment in the case; Kishk collected evidence by the old-school method of tapping the apartment’s phone.

One of the men tried to slit his wrists when Colonel Kishk seized him. I remember standing outside the Giza police station one February night in 2003, trying to get in to see them; I was turned away. I spoke to several of them much later (they were convicted, then acquitted on appeal, freed after six months in prison). Guards tortured them viciously in the police lockup. Possibly they were being tortured while I stood on the cold street.

This summer, by coincidence, I met a man who had been one of them. He’s almost forty now; he fled the country after he was freed, and has lived in the Gulf ever since, only returning to Egypt to see his family. When he told me his story and I realized who he was, he started crying. “You know,” he said, “in many ways I live well now. I have a good job in another country. And yet they ruined my life, utterly. I know that I am safe now. And yet I know I will never recover.”

One other thing I know about these cases: when the police invest their time and talents in training their own to entrap and deceive, or in blackmailing and manipulating gay informers, they’ll use those valuable human resources again and again and again, till they are shamed or commanded to stop. Why lose the investment? These stories are only the augury of more ordeals. Colonel Kishk is still on the job.

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Guy 1: “Those gay people are funny, bro…” Guy 2: “Yeah man…” Cartoon by Andeel, Mada Masr, August 20, 2014