BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Apps that violate privacy laws popular

  • The apps offer users the ability to plug in a phone number or license plate and pull up all the information associated with that number.

BEIRUT: Over two years after they appeared on the market, mobile applications allowing users to access private information using just a license plate or phone number continue to be popular, despite their illegality.

The applications have proven especially troublesome for some women who report being harassed by callers they either know or suspect found their phone numbers through such mobile apps.

Christelle Mechref, an interior architect, has been harassed by men using these apps about five times in the last three months alone.

“Usually it happens when you’re stuck in traffic,” she said. “Somebody calls and he’s like ‘hi’ and you say ‘hi, who are you,’ and he says ‘I’m the guy in the car next to you.’”

She said the callers often ask her to pull over or meet them somewhere. In the past, the men have ceased contact after a firm rejection, but Mechref said the thought that her contact information can be widely available is unnerving.

“It wasn’t really pleasant,” she said of the encounters. “You don’t get scared but you feel harassed. ... If they have access to this who knows what else they can access. He knows my name, my age, where I live and my mom’s name.”

Various versions of the apps offer users the ability to plug in a phone number or license plate and pull up all the information associated with that number, including the name of the registrant, their address, the make and model of the car and the year it was registered. Sometimes even sensitive financial information, such as mortgages taken out on the registered address, is retrievable.

Legally, this information should only be available to a few select parties, mostly government bodies. But Ziad Mugraby, a developer and the director of Beirut.com, said these databases are “not a close-kept secret,” and could easily be leaked by any number of sources. Lists of phone numbers can easily be cross-referenced with other leaked databases using a simple algorithm, he said.

Those with access to such databases include the Interior and Telecommunications ministries, but also the department of motor vehicles, banks who process vehicle maintenance fees, vehicle inspection firms, and phone companies, including Ogero, Alfa and MTC.

“Although I understand that harassment and privacy are concerns for a bunch of people, there is really no way for the government to stop this unless they go after the owners directly and tell them to shut it down or block access [to the server],” Mugraby said.

He added, however, that even if the government were to block the server it would be easy enough for the developers to simply reroute through a different one, leading the authorities into a “cat and mouse” chase.

Lebanon Directory and Lebanese Car Plate Directory, the earliest versions of these apps, were first made available on iTunes in 2010. Their release sparked a backlash, and the Telecoms Ministry reportedly filed a complaint with Apple. Lebanon Car Plate Directory appears to have been discontinued, but as of Monday, Lebanon Directory was still for sale on iTunes.

Last month, another Android app called Plate Numbers appeared on Google Play, the search engine’s app store, and became one of the most popular downloaded apps in Lebanon. According to Google Play, between 50,000 and 100,000 people have downloaded the app in the past 30 days.

The app was developed by a company called AppMazing, which maintains a Facebook page where the administrators have pledged to keep Plate Numbers up and working “no matter how hard things will get.”

The Daily Star reached out to the page’s administrators but was told that the developers were keeping their identities a secret and would not agree to a press interview.

Karim Kobeissi, a lawyer and adviser to caretaker Telecommunications Minister Nicholas Sehnaoui, said the apps were “absolutely illegal” and that the ministry “understands the danger” they pose.

He said the ministry would be informing the attorney general and filing letters of complaint to the app stores within the coming week. Blocking the servers, he added, was not an option because the apps were being offered through online stores.

Kobeissi went on to say the dilemma is not one of technology outstripping the capacity of the state, but rather a lack of will to enforce existing laws.

“Definitely the information is much more fluid now,” Kobeissi said. “The medium is different now but it doesn’t mean that I’m allowed to give it away. ... It’s not a problem of technology, it’s a problem of the regression of the state.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 16, 2013, on page 4.
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