Digital evidence—primarily from device searches—has made it easier for law enforcement to identify, harass, and prosecute LGBTQ people on the basis of their identity. This new report by Berkman Klein Center affiliate Afsaneh Rigot draws on years of in-depth research, including reviews of individual court case files and interviews with defense attorneys in Egypt, Lebanon, and Tunisia, to demonstrate the painful and unjust impacts of these developments, as well as the communities’ resilience.
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 anti-queer 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.
A senior researcher at the human rights NGO ARTICLE 19 and a Technology and Public Purpose fellow at HKS’s Belfer Center who has deep experience with both the needs and views of queer people in MENA as well as engaging tech companies to make meaningful change, Afsaneh Rigot advocates for a methodology she terms Design from the Margins. She calls on companies to use the findings of this report to build from the essential needs of those most impacted by their tools, creating better tech for all users in the process.