In most Arab countries, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* (LGBT) persons are still far from gaining social recognition. Despite the various social and cultural differences within the Arab world, silence remains a factor that cuts across the regional disparities and prevails whenever such taboo issues as homosexuality or transsexuality are broached.
Over the last few years, LGBT persons have indeed become more visible and active in the public sphere. Nonetheless, the State and society never cease to force them back “into the closet” with threats of ostracization, harassment, physical violence and even death. Generally, LGBT persons are still deemed to be at best non-existent, and at worst deviant, immoral, abnormal and diseased. With homosexual acts directly criminalized in most countries in the region, in some of which one can face the death penalty, it is already difficult for LGBT persons to come out, be visible, live out their identities or fight for their rights. While these laws are often ineffective and are not used systematically to prosecute individuals, the social and cultural condemnations of homosexuality remain the biggest threat for LGBT communities across the Arab world.
In view of the aforementioned political, legal and religious context, the Internet has emerged as a viable option for LGBT persons to gain visibility, communicate, network, and express what one cannot express in public. Social networks, blogging platforms and forums have become, in most Arab countries, the only spaces where LGBT persons can have a voice, organise themselves, formulate their regional discourses around their issues and fight for recognition. However, authorities and other opponents of LGBT rights have endeavored to keep up with this change. The turning point for LGBT rights in the region was the Queen Boat incident in May 2001, in which 52 men were arrested on charges of debauchery aboard a boat in Cairo. This incident drew regional and international attention and constituted a pivotal point for LGBT activists and individuals in the region.
In the years following the Queen Boat arrests, the Egyptian police began a campaign of ambushing gay men through creating fake profiles on gay dating sites, setting up dates for meetings, and then arresting the individuals at the meeting place. This incident was probably the first to draw attention to the pitfalls of the Internet and the many insecurities and problems that come with its use for human rights defence, including the assertion and exploration of LGBT identity. Furthermore, government censorship and tracking of all Internet activities, usually through surveillance malware and phishing of social media accounts, have reached new heights during the revolutions across the Arab world beginning in early 2011: blocking websites and tracking of activist activities on Facebook, Twitter, and personal blogs are some of the most prominent ways the governments have used to target individuals since this period.
LGBT persons and activists are no exception: social networks and dating websites remain the most common ways of targeting LGBT persons, through hacking their personal pages (blogs, email addresses, Facebook or Twitter accounts); blocking informal LGBT networks online (as in the case of the Tunisian GayDay magazine in 2011); using their information and at times pictures to blackmail or 'out' them to their families, and setting up fake accounts, by police and others, to ambush LGBT persons and ultimately arrest, threaten and scandalize them (as in the aforementioned cases in Egypt). Thus, the insecurities of information on the Internet are considerable in number, and despite the recent increase in awareness about the dangers of insecure usage of the Internet, access to the most practical solutions that could ensure digital safety for LGBT users remains limited.
Consequently, there is an increasing and dire need for knowledge of the most recent methods and tools of digital security, through which LGBT persons and human rights defenders could ensure their online privacy, circumvent governmental censorship and threats, and protect their information, personal pages, profiles and websites from being hacked, accessed, and ultimately used against them.
With that in mind, we have created this guide in order to help contextualise digital security threats for LGBT persons and human rights defenders from the Arabic-speaking countries, as well as the tools and tactics that can be used for overcoming them.
The guide, which was designed and written in collaboration with LGBT human rights defenders from the region, serves an introduction to Tactical Technology Collective and Front Line Defenders' Security in-a-Box toolkit for human rights defenders, and expands upon its content to include important contextual information, tools and tips particularly relevant to the LGBT community in the Arabic-speaking region, as identified by members of the community in workshops carried out in 2012. The aim of this is to make the issue of digital security clearer and easier to understand in the context of LGBT individuals from the region, and easier to implement into the work and personal lives of people from the community.