Foreign Technology Used to Spy on Opposition inside Country, Abroad
March 25, 2014
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The Ethiopian government is using control of its telecom system as a tool to silence dissenting voices. The foreign firms that are providing products and services that facilitate Ethiopia’s illegal surveillance are risking complicity in rights abuses.
Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director

(Berlin) – The Ethiopian government is using foreign technology to bolster its widespread telecom surveillance of opposition activists and journalists both in Ethiopia and abroad.

The 100-page report, “‘They Know Everything We Do’: Telecom and Internet Surveillance in Ethiopia,” details the technologies the Ethiopian government has acquired from several countries and uses to facilitate surveillance of perceived political opponents inside the country and among the diaspora. The government’s surveillance practices violate the rights to freedom of expression, association, and access to information. The government’s monopoly over all mobile and Internet services through its sole, state-owned telecom operator, Ethio Telecom, facilitates abuse of surveillance powers.

“The Ethiopian government is using control of its telecom system as a tool to silence dissenting voices,” said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The foreign firms that are providing products and services that facilitate Ethiopia’s illegal surveillance are risking complicity in rights abuses.”

The report draws on more than 100 interviews with victims of abuses and former intelligence officials in Ethiopia and 10 other countries between September 2012 and February 2014. Because of the government’s complete control over the telecom system, Ethiopian security officials have virtually unlimited access to the call records of all telephone users in Ethiopia. They regularly and easily record phone calls without any legal process or oversight.

Recorded phone calls with family members and friends – particularly those with foreign phone numbers – are often played during abusive interrogations in which people who have been arbitrarily detained are accused of belonging to banned organizations. Mobile networks have been shut down during peaceful protests and protesters’ locations have been identified using information from their mobile phones.

A former opposition party member told Human Rights Watch: “One day they arrested me and they showed me everything. They showed me a list of all my phone calls and they played a conversation I had with my brother. They arrested me because we talked about politics on the phone. It was the first phone I ever owned, and I thought I could finally talk freely.”

The government has curtailed access to information by blocking websites that offer any independent or critical analysis of political events in Ethiopia. In-country testing that Human Rights Watch and Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto research center focusing on internet security and rights, carried out in 2013 showed that Ethiopia continues to block websites of opposition groups, media sites, and bloggers. In a country where there is little in the way of an independent media, access to such information is critical.

Ethiopian authorities using mobile surveillance have frequently targeted the ethnic Oromo population. Taped phone calls have been used to compel people in custody to confess to being part of banned groups, such as the Oromo Liberation Front, which seeks greater autonomy for the Oromo people, or to provide information about members of these groups. Intercepted emails and phone calls have been submitted as evidence in trials under the country’s flawed anti-terrorism law, without indication that judicial warrants were obtained.

The authorities have also detained and interrogated people who received calls from phone numbers outside of Ethiopia that may not be in Ethio Telecom databases. As a result, many Ethiopians, particularly in rural areas, are afraid to call or receive phone calls from abroad, a particular problem for a country that has many nationals working in foreign countries.

Most of the technologies used to monitor telecom activity in Ethiopia have been provided by the Chinese telecom giant ZTE, which has been in the country since at least 2000 and was its exclusive supplier of telecom equipment from 2006 to 2009. ZTE is a major player in the African and global telecom industry, and continues to have a key role in the development of Ethiopia’s fledgling telecom network. ZTE has not responded to Human Rights Watch inquiries about whether it is taking steps to address and prevent human rights abuses linked to unlawful mobile surveillance in Ethiopia.

Several European companies have also provided advanced surveillance technology to Ethiopia, which have been used to target members of the diaspora. Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System. These tools give security and intelligence agencies access to files, information, and activity on the infected target’s computer. They can log keystrokes and passwords and turn on a device’s webcam and microphone, effectively turning a computer into a listening device. Ethiopians living in the UK, United States, Norway, and Switzerland are among those known to have been infected with this software, and cases have been brought in the US and UK alleging illegal wiretapping. One Skype conversation gleaned from the computers of infected Ethiopians has appeared on pro-government websites.

Gamma has not responded to Human Rights Watch inquiries as to whether it has any meaningful process in place to restrict the use or sale of these products to governments with poor human rights records. While Hacking Team applies certain precautions to limit abuse of its products, it has not confirmed whether and how those precautions applied to sales to the Ethiopian government.

“Ethiopia’s use of foreign technologies to target opposition members abroad is a deeply troubling example of this unregulated global trade, creating serious risks of abuse,” Ganesan said. “The makers of these tools should take immediate steps to address their misuse; including investigating the use of these tools to target the Ethiopian diaspora and addressing the human rights impact of their Ethiopia operations.”

Such powerful spyware remains virtually unregulated at the global level and there are insufficient national controls or limits on their export, Human Rights Watch said. In 2013, rights groups filed a complaint at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development alleging such technologies had been deployed to target activists in Bahrain, and Citizen Lab has found evidence of use of these tools in over 25 countries.

The internationally protected rights to privacy, and freedom of expression, information, and association are enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution. However, Ethiopia either lacks or ignores judicial and legislative mechanisms to protect people from unlawful government surveillance. This danger is made worse by the widespread use of torture and other ill-treatment against political detainees in Ethiopian detention centers.

The extent of Ethiopia’s use of surveillance technologies may be limited by capacity issues and a lack of trust among key government ministries, Human Rights Watch said. But as capacity increases, Ethiopians may increasingly see far more pervasive unlawful use of mobile and email surveillance.

The government’s actual control is exacerbated by the perception among many Ethiopians that government surveillance is omnipresent, resulting in considerable self-censorship, with Ethiopians refraining from openly communicating on a variety of topics across telecom networks. Self-censorship is especially common in rural Ethiopia, where mobile phone coverage and access to the Internet is very limited. The main mode of government control is through extensive networks of informants and a grassroots system of surveillance. This rural legacy means that many rural Ethiopians view mobile phones and other telecommunications technologies as just another tool to monitor them, Human Rights Watch found.

“As Ethiopia’s telecom system grows, there is an increasing need to ensure that proper legal protections are followed and that security officials don’t have unfettered access to people’s private communications,” Ganesan said. “Adoption of Internet and mobile technologies should support democracy, facilitating the spread of ideas and opinions and access to information, rather than being used to stifle people’s rights.”