Digital Crime Scenes: The Role of Digital Evidence in the Persecution of LGBTQ People in Egypt, Lebanon, and Tunisia

  • Afsaneh Rigot
| Mar. 07, 2022

The use of digital evidence has emboldened police to further target LGBTQ people. A mosaic of selfies, texts, phone calls, dating apps, and other common forms of communication–a source of joy, community, and support–are used as evidence of so-called “deviant” behavior. Yet, what is deemed too queer to be legal is not defined. This study examines how law enforcement in Egypt, Lebanon, and Tunisia have appropriated and weaponized technology to prosecute queerness. Through a mixed-methods process, including interviews with leading defense attorneys, as well as a review of legal documents and 29 court files detailing prosecutions, the study shows how the prosecution of something as personal as identity has been optimized through digital evidence. Key findings include that it is predominately digital evidence gained through illegal device searches that facilitates the persecution of queer identity, from investigation through trial and sentencing. Manual policing tactics are combined with digital technologies to push for higher sentences.  Refugees, sex workers, and others with multiply marginalized identities are more at risk. Finally, in a period of increasing antiqueer law enforcement activity, the Egyptian system demonstrates a worrying trend of increased use of cyber laws, which introduce both a lower standard of evidence as well as higher penalties. The study also highlights new evidence in the increasing digitization of queer prosecutions in Tunisia as indicator of increasing policing strategies reminiscent of the Egyptian model. The paper concludes with recommendations, including that companies can play an important role in protecting queer users by upholding their international human rights duties to their users and employing a Design from the Margins methodology, building from the essential needs of those most impacted by their tools, and creating better tech for all. 

Executive Summary 

In 2015, Ahmed and Sameer went to purchase groceries in the suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon. Local police profiled them based on their appearance, then detained and arrested them on suspicion of homosexual conduct. Police confiscated their phones and searched them for evidence of “immoral” behavior. A nude photo and a photo of Ahmed and Sameer kissing were found. The two men were charged with practicing homosexuality under a law prohibiting “sexual acts against nature” in 2016. While defense lawyers challenged the judgment the sentence was upheld in 2019; both were given large fines. Luckily, they avoided imprisonment.

Ahmed and Sameer are far from alone. Targeting LGBTQ people for policing and imprisonment is not a new practice, but in many countries the use of digital evidence has empowered police to act on charges of homosexuality. Selfies, sexts, dating app chats, and other common forms of communications have become potential tools for prosecution, as these now can be used to provide evidence of claims of so-called “deviant” sexual behavior. This study, the first of its kind, examines how law enforcement in three countries, Egypt, Lebanon, and Tunisia, have adapted technology to aid in the prosecution of queerness. These types of cases are not in any way unique to these countries, however. The author focuses on these three countries because of her knowledge of their laws and her personal connections with the communities within them. Additionally, all three countries have laws that are used to criminalize LGBTQ people, and they all have documented cases of police that rely on digital technologies to prosecute, arrest, or harass members of the queer community.

The following close examination of the prosecutions of queer people with the use of digital evidence yields information that will allow implicated corporate actors to reverse engineer their tools and make changes that facilitate safety of those most impacted.

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For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Rigot, Afsaneh . “Digital Crime Scenes: The Role of Digital Evidence in the Persecution of LGBTQ People in Egypt, Lebanon, and Tunisia.” , March 7, 2022.

The Author

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