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“1984”: The possible future of mobile?

“To the youth of Egypt, beware of rumours, listen to the voice of reason, Egypt is above everything, preserve it.” — This is one of several text messages which were sent out by mobile operators in Egypt since mass protests against the rule of President Hosni Mubarak began on January 25.

In a stunning revelation, Vodafone, a British-based mobile operator, said last week that all mobile operators in Egypt had been ordered to suspend services in some areas amid the protests, and that they were obliged to send out these mass text messages under Egyptian law.

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There is a dark underside to the pervasiveness of mobile phones, which is being revealed as governments seek to harness the ability to communicate and use it for their own purposes. Control of content on mobile phones is set to become one of the hottest topics of the decade.

Mobile technologies are the quickest, most direct tools of communication around the world. A mobile phone is a prized commodity. You can watch television, surf the web, even navigate your way around a new city with a range global positioning systems or Google Maps. And you can reach thousands of people quickly with a message that takes on a viral status.

As the technology expands so does its uses. Parents can now track their children’s whereabouts with applications such as Nokia’s Kno-Where and the website Cell Phone Tracking.

There is a general zeitgeist where people feel “Google is watching us”. You’re searching for a topic and suddenly all the ads in your emails relate to that subject. If you go by Hollywood, movies such as Matrix or Eagle Eye you are constantly warned that the “machines will soon rise up against us”.

Perhaps you prefer George Orwell’s dystopian political fiction “1984” and the “government’s ploy to control its citizens”.

Conspiracy theorists everywhere analyse technology and the evils it poses to society’s freedom.

The South African government recently introduced the Regulation of Interception of Communication Act (RICA), a new law that makes it compulsory for everyone to register all new and existing cellphone numbers. RICA was introduced as part of the government’s crime prevention initiatives.

As the crisis in Egypt unfolded, reports began surfacing that the Egyptian authorities were forcing mobile phone operators to broadcast messages of support during the on-going protests.

This according to Vodafone:
“Under the emergency powers provisions of the Telecoms Act, the Egyptian authorities can instruct the mobile networks of Mobinil, Etisalat and Vodafone to send messages to the people of Egypt,” Vodafone said in a statement.

“They have used this since the start of the protests. These messages are not scripted by any of the mobile network operators and we do not have the ability to respond to the authorities on their content,” it added.

“Vodafone Group has protested to the authorities that the current situation regarding these messages is unacceptable. We have made clear that all messages should be transparent and clearly attributable to the originator.”

One of the text messages read: “The armed forces are looking after your security and will not resort to violence against this great people.”

“To every mother, father, sister, brother, to every honourable citizen: preserve this country because the fatherland is everlasting,” read another.

A Vodafone source said they were concerned that people in Egypt were under the impression that operators were willingly issuing messages on behalf of the government.

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