March 25, 2014

I. Background

Patterns of Repression and Government Control

Since the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power in 1991, a coalition of ethnically-based political parties led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has used various means to consolidate political power.[3]

Repressive measures aimed at restricting freedom of expression and association, as well as access to information, have increased since the controversial 2005 elections.[4] These measures include the harassment, arbitrary detention, and prosecution of opposition leaders, journalists, and activists. The passage in 2009 of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (anti-terrorism law) and the Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSO law) further stifled critical voices. The anti-terrorism law has been used to charge and convict journalists, religious leaders, and others for exercising their rights to free expression and peaceful assembly. Many nongovernmental organizations that worked on human rights, governance, and other issues affected by the CSO law have been forced to close or curtail their activities. Little dissent is allowed and individuals are frequently detained for openly questioning government policies and perspectives.[5]

Independent media in Ethiopia has also been decimated in recent years. Very few independent publications exist, and the continual threat of being charged under the anti-terrorism law hangs over journalists who are critical of the government.[6] Many journalists opt for self-censorship instead, avoiding topics deemed politically sensitive. Directives have been passed making printing presses liable for the content of their publications and radio and television stations are either state-run or minimize criticisms of government policy in order to be able to operate.[7]

Ethiopia’s ruling party also dominates the political, economic, and social spheres by completely controlling access to state resources, employment, and benefits.[8] This dual strategy of restricting independent voices and encouraging ruling party support paid off for the ruling party in the 2010 parliamentary elections, as the EPRDF won 99.6 percent of the seats, although this raised many questions about the conduct of the elections.[9]

One reason for the EPRDF’s political dominance is that it implements an effective and pervasive community-level surveillance system throughout Ethiopia, a system that relies on active monitoring and reporting of various kinds of activity. But it also benefits from deeply entrenched historical and social attitudes towards the government. The EPRDF uses its well-established network of informants throughout the country to monitor the activities and movements of individuals and households at the kebele (village) level, often intimidating them into supporting the ruling party. A complex system of individual and household surveillance is in place. Commonly known as the 5:1 system, it has many variations depending on location but all involve Ethiopians monitoring the day-to-day activities of other Ethiopians, including friends, family members, colleagues, and neighbors. [10] Information on a stranger visiting a rural village or individuals who are openly soliciting support for opposition political parties, for example, are usually swiftly reported to kebele leaders. Dissenters are dealt with in a variety of ways, from informal pressure to threats. Continued dissent is passed up the chain of command for further action. In most cases, the mere knowledge that someone may be monitoring your activities is enough to restrict free speech and compel you to self-censor.

Strategically-placed individuals—teachers and police officers, for instance—have increased monitoring responsibilities. These surveillance systems are set up throughout the country to monitor election compliance, to gather intelligence, and to serve other functions. Since anybody could be an informant, the net effect is that people are very afraid to speak openly to anyone but their closest confidants. There is very little in the way of public discourse about sensitive political issues and little opportunity to express dissent in a safe manner.

Ethiopia’s population remains predominantly rural, over 85 percent, and these tools and techniques of repression are effective in a country where phone use is still limited and much communication remains by word of mouth.[11] But recent years have seen a rapid increase of mobile phone and Internet use throughout the country. Ethiopia has ambitious growth plans in its telecommunications sector and a reliable and widespread telecom service is crucial for the government to reach its economic targets.[12] Telecommunications growth will give Ethiopians new and unprecedented opportunities to share news, ideas, and access information in a timely manner. However, these developments also present a challenge for government: how to embrace the many economic benefits of a growing telecom sector while ensuring that increased access does not translate into unfettered social and political mobilization and public protest of the kind seen in North Africa and the Middle East in recent years.

Targets of Surveillance

While the Ethiopian government has legitimate national security concerns, government’s use of surveillance puts a significant focus on individuals deemed to be a political, rather than a security, threat.

According to former intelligence officials who spoke to Human Rights Watch, the selection of some surveillance targets is not necessarily based on the security threat they pose, and the actual methods of surveillance are sometimes unlawful. More intensive surveillance is undertaken on individuals who are connected with opposition parties—whether registered political parties or those that the government has listed as criminal or terrorist organizations. Individuals who speak to journalists or opposition figures are also often targeted, and in the past few years those associated with the Muslim protests have come under increased monitoring.[13]

Former intelligence officials told Human Rights Watch that prominent individuals suspected of being connected with opposition political parties and armed movements, especially Ginbot 7 and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), are frequently the focus of targeted telecom surveillance. Intelligence officials also said that officials from registered political parties including the Union for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) are also frequent targets of surveillance.[14] The security services may also target individuals due to their ethnicity or family connections, irrespective of whether they belong to a banned organization.

The Ethiopian government considers Ginbot 7, the OLF, and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) to be terrorist organizations under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.[15] Ginbot 7 was formed by some former members of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) party who fled Ethiopia after being detained and convicted of “outrages against the constitution,” among other charges, following the controversial 2005 elections.[16] Ginbot 7 is based outside of Ethiopia, has not contested any of Ethiopia’s elections, and some of its leaders have been convicted under various laws. It is not a legally registered political party.

The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) is one of the oldest ethnic Oromo political organizations, founded in the 1960s as part of Oromo nationalist movements fighting against the Haile Selassie government.[17] The OLF’s fragile alliance with the TPLF splintered early in the 1990s and it withdrew from elections and government. Since then it has waged what most observers view as a fairly limited and ineffectual armed resistance against the EPRDF.[18] However, the government uses the specter of an ongoing OLF “armed struggle” to justify widespread repression of Oromo individuals. Regional government and security officials routinely accuse dissidents, critics and students of being OLF "terrorists" or insurgents. Thousands of Oromo from all walks of life have been targeted for arbitrary detention, torture and other abuses even when there has been no evidence linking them to the OLF.[19]

Human Rights Watch interviews suggest that a significant number of Oromo individuals have been targeted for unlawful surveillance. Those arrested are invariably accused of being members or supporters of the OLF. In some cases, security officials may have a reasonable suspicion of these individuals being involved with OLF. But in the majority of cases, Oromos were under surveillance because they were organizing cultural associations or trade unions, were involved in celebrating Oromo culture (through music, art, etc.) or were involved in registered political parties.

Like the OLF, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) was initially a political party, but began a low-level armed insurgency in Ethiopia’s Somali region in response to what it perceived to be the EPRDF’s failure to respect regional autonomy, and to consider demands for self-determination.[20] In 2007, the ONLF scaled up armed attacks against government targets and oil exploration sites, triggering a harsh crackdown by the government.[21] As with the government’s counterinsurgency response to the OLF, the Ethiopian security forces have routinely committed abuses against individuals of Somali ethnicity, including arbitrary detentions, torture, and extrajudicial killings, based on their ethnicity or perceived support for the ONLF.

Since the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation in 2009, Ethiopia has used its overly broad provisions to target individuals and organizations that express opinions contrary to government policy or positions, often claiming that they are members or supporters of these banned organizations. While the government may have legitimate security interests in monitoring individuals who support armed anti-government movements, there are two serious concerns with the manner in which the authorities conduct surveillance activities. One is that even where an individual may be a legitimate target, the methods used to monitor and investigate their activities can be unlawful, for instance disregarding the need for judicial warrants. A second concern is that the Ethiopian security forces have repeatedly targeted a broad spectrum of individuals based solely on ethnicity, participation in lawful activities, or family connections. One former intelligence official said:

We would often try to gather specific evidence that people were linked to terrorist groups like OLF, ONLF, or Ginbot 7. Ginbot 7 [is] not a problem in the country anymore, and they know that but they are still using the threat of Ginbot 7 to harass people, even if there is no threat. OLF is not a terrorist threat either. ONLF is the only real threat. Oromo people, especially the young, still have sentiment for OLF. They [the authorities] use OLF to marginalize Oromos—there is a threat from the idea of OLF, but not from the actual OLF.[22]

Former intelligence officials also described the gathering of intelligence on international NGOs. Information was often collected about the individuals employed, the finances of the organization, and the NGO’s foreign connections.[23] It is not known how widespread NGO surveillance is in Ethiopia. Most of the intelligence was gathered from individuals employed by the organization who were acting as informants or from intelligence officials who were hired as employees in some other capacity in the organization. Use of telephone or email surveillance was minimal according to former intelligence officials. However, one former intelligence official involved in the monitoring of several foreign NGOs told Human Rights Watch that, “We have the potential and there is nothing to stop us from doing that.”[24] The Prevention and Suppression of Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism Proclamation 657/2009 gives security officials broad powers of surveillance over the financial activities of NGOs.[25]

Former officials also described to Human Rights Watch being involved in gathering intelligence on Ethiopians living in the diaspora. This involved “old-school” techniques of infiltrating diaspora communities and gathering information on the key diaspora players and the extent of their involvement in Ethiopian politics or media. There is no evidence that emails or telephone calls are monitored in any substantive way. There are increasing reports of Ethiopian embassies in various capitals putting more and more effort into recruiting informants within diaspora communities. Former government officials report that the government facilitates individuals acquiring scholarships to study abroad in order to recruit those individuals as informants. Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials play a significant role in this and, according to several former employees, maintain records of financial transactions from the diaspora to Ethiopians in-country. Ostensibly this is part of Ethiopia’s efforts to combat the financing of terrorism and money laundering but information is kept that goes far beyond that.[26]

With a young population, many Ethiopians know nothing other than extensive government control over their lives, and it is through this lens that many view the opportunities that enhanced access to mobile and Internet services may bring to their lives. A refugee currently living in Kenya summed up the situation:

They have complete control. I was a teacher and was told I needed to join [EPRDF], I refused and was fired. My family [members] were farmers, because of me they did not receive seeds or any benefits from the kebele. “That is for government” they were told. Everyone I know is angry with our government, but people are fearful for their lives if they get involved in politics. There are thousands of people here in [refugee location] who have fled because they dared question government. Mobile phones came to my kebele [village] several years ago. At first we were excited but it hasn’t made any difference to us, it’s just another way they control us. They listen to our calls and arrest us if we talk to people they don’t like. All this so-called development hasn’t changed anything—they still have complete control, we can’t say anything, we are still poor, and if you don’t support their ways you end up living here [as a refugee].[27]

The opportunities that these technologies provide to increase freedoms of expression, access to information, and freedom of association are greatly diminished for those living in fear as they are afraid to use these technologies to their full extent. As one man said, “We have no choice in the matter. They run the phone service. They know our phone number and where we live. They know everything about us.”[28]

Fears of Surveillance

Many Ethiopians believe that the introduction of technologies such as the mobile phone and Internet-based technologies are a new way for the government to exercise control and monitor Ethiopians. Such perceptions may derive in part from Ethiopia’s long history of highly authoritarian and centralized governance, which stretches back well before the EPRDF.[29]

Many Ethiopians with whom Human Rights Watch spoke thought that all their phone calls and emails are monitored, and that none of these mediums are safe to communicate on. Because of the perception and fearof surveillance, they said they self-censor their telephone and Internet communications. These fears appear to persist to different degrees throughout the country, regardless of ethnicity. Many told Human Rights Watch that the basis for their fear was rumors of arrests due to the contents of phone calls but very few people could provide specific details. Even more described hearing of others being arrested based on receiving phone calls from certain people outside of Ethiopia.

Many refugees who have fled Ethiopia for various reasons told Human Rights Watch they have been told by their relatives in Ethiopia not to call because it is too dangerous. Inside Ethiopia, many individuals avoid communicating about many topics, or only answer in very innocuous ways or speak using a variety of code words. As one man said, “We use so many code words and avoid talking directly about so many topics that often I’m not sure I know what we are really talking about.”[30] Other individuals stated that the phone is only used to make appointments with no substantive conversation ever taking place. The net effect is that the fear of telephone surveillance adds to the harms caused by the reality of phone surveillance—it restricts what people are willing to communicate and with whom they are willing to communicate.

Self-censorship is also prevalent in email and online communications. Very few people who spoke to Human Rights Watch, including senior government officials, ever use their .et email addresses because of the perception of pervasive surveillance. Many individuals within Ethiopia use fake email addresses and avoid using certain sensitive keywords. Others refuse to use email altogether. One notable exception to this is Facebook, where Ethiopians seem to speak much more openly.[31]

Regional and woreda-level government employees also practice high degrees of self-censorship and many will not communicate about sensitive subjects on email or telephone. NGO workers and foreign government officials also readily censor the contents of their messages, unclear about the actual extent of surveillance and not willing to risk reprisals.

As a former farmer from Oromia told Human Rights Watch:

We all know they watch every step we make. We can’t go anywhere without them knowing, we can’t speak bad things about government without having trouble, we can’t get education or services without supporting them. We know they listen to all our phone calls and Internet. We know all of this, but what can we do? We are all too scared to speak our mind.[32]

Telecommunications and Media in Ethiopia

Mobile phone usage has grown dramatically in Ethiopia in the last few years, although coverage is still very limited in comparison to other sub-Saharan African countries. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Ethiopia has 23.7 users per 100 people and just 0.9 landline subscribers per 100 people.[33] By way of comparison, neighboring Kenya has 72 mobile subscriptions per 100 people and Nigeria has 68 mobile subscriptions per 100 people.[34] Mobile rates are expensive and the network is prone to frequent and lengthy outages, particularly outside of Addis Ababa, much to the frustration of Ethiopians.[35] While mobile phone use is increasing, many Ethiopians in more remote areas continue to rely either on shared landlines or on VSAT telephones available at the local Ethio Telecom office.[36]

The majority of Internet sites with Ethiopian content are hosted on servers outside of Ethiopia and are run by the diaspora, although the number of websites hosted by Ethiopians in-country are increasing. Many Ethiopian sites are in English, although there are a significant and increasing number of Amharic sites available along with a number of sites in Somali and Afan Oromo.

Internet usage in Ethiopia is still in its infancy with less than 1.5 percent of Ethiopians connected to the Internet and fewer than 27,000 broadband subscribers countrywide. By contrast, neighboring Kenya has close to 40 percent access.[37]The majority of Internet users are located in Addis Ababa. According to the ITU, Ethiopia has some of the most expensive broadband in the world.[38] Given these costs, Ethiopians usually access the Internet through the growing number of cybercafés or from their mobile phones.[39] Internet has been available to mobile phone subscribers since 2009.[40] Wi-Fi Internet is increasingly available in many of the more expensive hotels and cafes. Connectivity speeds countrywide are quite low, and are prone to frequent outages.

The Ethiopian government has ambitious growth targets in the telecommunications sector. Ethiopia aims to increase mobile subscribers and mobile coverage six-fold over 2009-2010 levels by 2013-2014 and to increase Internet levels twenty-fold, according to Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plan.[41] The plan contains three key strategies for implementing this growth: telecom provider upgrades to meet international standards, the use of domestic products and services, and the “establishment and effective enforcement of comprehensive policy and regulatory frameworks to prevent and control illegal activities in the industry.”[42]

Facebook use is growing more rapidly in many developing countries in comparison to more developed countries, where Facebook has a longer history of use. In Ethiopia, Facebook use is becoming increasingly popular with many of the young and educated to connect and share ideas and perspectives.[43] Despite legislative restrictions, Skype continues to be used widely.[44] Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo! Mail are the most popular webmail services and Paltalk is widely used in Ethiopia for group discussions.[45] Twitter has not been widely adopted.

Radio is still one of the most important mediums through which Ethiopians receive information. While television plays a larger role in urban areas, radio is still key in rural areas. One study found that 80 percent of Ethiopians use radio as a source of information while 53 percent said radio was their most important source of information. This study also reiterated the importance of word-of-mouth communication in Ethiopia, with nearly 50 percent identifying word of mouth as a source of information.[46] The radio and television sectors are dominated by government-affiliated stations. There are several private FM stations mainly focused on Addis Ababa affairs and no privately run television stations based within Ethiopia.

State Monopoly on Telecommunication Services

State-owned Ethio Telecom is the only telecommunications service provider in Ethiopia. It controls access to the phone network and to the Internet and all phone and Internet traffic must use Ethio Telecom infrastructure. There is no other service provider available in Ethiopia. Ethio Telecom therefore controls access to the Internet backbone that connects Ethiopia to the international Internet. In addition, Internet cafés must apply for a license and purchase service from Ethio Telecom to operate.

Ethiopia has been under pressure to liberalize its telecom sector from the World Bank and others to allow increased competition, but has thus far steadfastly refused to liberalize the sector.[47] Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in mid-2013 resisted calls for privatization, calling the telecom sector “a cash cow for government coffers” and stressed that Ethio Telecom revenues were being used to fund the proposed Djibouti-Addis railroad.[48] Ethiopia’s desire to be a full member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has renewed the calls for telecom liberalization.[49] However, Chinese telecom equipment giants ZTE and Huawei have been building and upgrading much of the country’s telecom infrastructure since at least 2003.[50]

The desire to control the telecom sector has led to a grossly underdeveloped telecommunications system in comparison to regional neighbors.[51] This has the effect of stunting economic growth, particularly in rural areas, and limiting opportunities for the spread of ideas and information across the country.[52] But retention of this key sector allows government to more easily control and monitor who and how Ethiopians access the telecom and Internet services. The existence of private sector companies in the telecom sector could increase the difficulty for government of accessing communications records without going through additional steps or legal processes.

History of Telecommunications in Ethiopia

The Ethiopia Telecommunications Corporation (ETC) was originally established in 1952, and since that time has been Ethiopia’s sole telecommunications provider. In 2006, ETC took a major step towards modernizing its outdated infrastructure, signing contracts worth US$2.4 billion with three major Chinese companies—ZTE, Huawei, and China International Telecom Corporation (CITCC)—to rapidly develop the country’s telecommunications infrastructure.[53] As a result, these companies have played a large role in laying Ethiopia’s main fiber optic communications network.[54] Prior to this time, Ethiopia’s telecom infrastructure had been developed in an ad hoc manner by a number of foreign companies.

In addition, in 2006, ZTE signed a three-year, $1.6 billion deal to become ETC’s sole equipment vendor for nine equipment packages. [55] The exact category of equipment sold under the deal is unclear, but ZTE was tasked with a major upgrade and expansion of both fixed line and mobile infrastructure and services. ZTE sells a range of telecommunications equipment, software, and services, including network switches, mobile handsets, and software systems. [56] As Zhang Yanmeng, chief executive officer of ZTE’s Ethiopia subsidiary stated in 2009, “This is the world’s only project in which a national telecom network is built by a sole equipment supplier.” [57] Some have expressed concerns about the lack of transparency and heightened risk for corruption because of the nature of these deals. [58]

In December 2010, ETC became rebranded as Ethio Telecom, and outsourced management functions to France Telecom (now operating as Orange) via its subsidiary Sofrecom. [59] According to France Telecom-Orange (Orange), the objective of the management contract was to transform and modernize the operations of Ethio Telecom to “world class standards,” including through capacity building for managers and transfer of know-how and best practice. [60] Ultimately, the goal was to improve delivery of telecom services in Ethiopia and achieve “management autonomy” by the end of the contract.

Orange, through its subsidiary Sofrecom, was to oversee this broad restructuring of Ethio Telecom as part of the nationwide Business Process Reengineering (BPR) initiative, seen by many as the first steps towards privatization of Ethiopia’s telecom operator. [61] The latest round of BPR in Ethiopia began after the 2005 elections and involved an overhaul of the structures and work processes of law enforcement, security, and other key institutions in an effort to improve efficiency.

By mid-2008, many of the BPR processes were completed nationwide, with staff reductions in many institutions. Former Ethio Telecom employees told Human Rights Watch of qualified personnel being removed from key positions because they were not EPRDF party members or because they questioned government policy. [62] They alleged that senior staff were often replaced by EPRDF cadres who did not seem to have the necessary qualifications.

In January 2013, Ethio Telecom’s management agreement with Orange ended and Ethiopian managers, mostly EPRDF cadres, took over the key positions. Under Orange’s management, telecommunications coverage in Ethiopia grew from 8 to 25 percent. [63] In the same period, the number of Ethio Telecom employees dropped from 12,600 to 8,600. [64] At the conclusion of the initial contract in December 2012, Orange and Ethio Telecom signed an additional one-year agreement, under which Orange would continue to provide support for “ network design, architecture, technology selection negotiation and related technical areas.” [65]

In June 2011, Ethio Telecom issued a tender inviting international suppliers to submit proposals to upgrade Ethio Telecom’s infrastructure. Companies that registered interest included Ericsson, Nokia, ZTE, Huawei, and China International Telecom Corporation. [66] In August 2013 it was announced that ZTE and Huawei were the successful bidders in a $1.6 billion deal, though the exact details and breakdown of duties has not been announced. [67] Ethiopia’s telecom infrastructure is outdated, but Ethiopia has ambitious plans to update that infrastructure through their partnership with ZTE and Huawei.

Institutions of Ethiopia’s Telecommunication and Surveillance Apparatus

Until 2010, the Ethiopian Telecommunication Agency (ETA) was the government regulator for phone and Internet networks in Ethiopia that “specifies technical standards and procedures for provision of Telecommunications Services.” It granted the ETC (now Ethio Telecom) a license in 2002 as Ethiopia’s sole provider of telecommunication services and Internet services.[68]

The Ethiopian Information and Communication Technology Development Agency (EICTDA ) played a key role in overseeing programs and polices related to information and communications technology (ICT) activities. EICTDA was formed in 2005 as an autonomous organization under the Ministry of Capacity Building. It formulated the National ICT policy in 2009, and managed the Woredanet program.[69]

The Woredanet program, which was partially funded by the World Bank and other donors, is intended to provide “ICT services such as video conferencing, directory, messaging and Voice Over IP, and Internet connectivity” to regional governments and local administrations throughout Ethiopia. According to government media, the program had reached 950 woredas and government offices by April 2013.[70]Cisco Systems, a US telecommunications equipment company, won a tender in 2003 to build the core network supporting WoredaNet and a related project, SchoolNet, which connects hundreds of secondary educational institutions across the country and provides access to the Internet and ICT equipment.[71] Subsequent projects also networked Ethiopian universities and equipped them with eLearning centers (UniversityNet) and connected agricultural centers (AgriNet) and hospitals (HealthNet).

The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT), formerly the Ministry of Information, assumed the responsibilities of both the ETA and EICTDA in 2010.[72] The MCIT is responsible for overseeing the implementation of communications and technology policies and programs in Ethiopia.[73] According to various former intelligence and Ethio Telecom officials, MCIT plays a major role in determining which radio and television programs are jammed and likely play a key role in determining which websites are blocked.[74] They are also responsible for the licensing of private media. The current minister is Debretsion Gebremichael, who replaced Bereket Simon, a longtime EPRDF member and advisor to the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Debretsion is also one of the deputy prime ministers, the current chairperson of Ethio Telecom, and a former deputy director of NISS, underscoring the strong links between Ethio Telecom, the intelligence apparatus, and the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology. He was also the director-general of EICTDA during implementation of the Woredanet program and is a key TPLF member.

The National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) is Ethiopia’s intelligence and security agency and has a broad mandate. While federal police and other law enforcement agencies have various roles and responsibilities in Ethiopia’s security sector, the NISS takes the lead for any matters of national security and intelligence. It has always had a murky mandate. The July 2013 passage of the NISS Proclamation should have clarified that mandate, but the law contains vague language that gives NISS broad powers to investigate threats “against the national economic growth and development activities” and to gather intelligence on serious crimes and terrorist activities.[75]

The Information Network Security Agency (INSA), a relatively new yet increasingly powerful branch of the security apparatus, was established to “ensure the security of information and information infrastructure to facilitate their use for the implementation of the country’s peace, democratization, good governance, and development programs.”[76] Accountable to the prime minister, INSA plays an important role in Internet monitoring and filtering of websites and is increasingly integrated with Ethio Telecom and other departments with information management mandates. It plays a key role in facilitating access to citizen’s private digital communications for security and police forces, working closely with Ethio Telecom. INSA’s role is constantly evolving and it is taking more and more responsibilities as Ethiopia’s telecommunication sector grows.

In addition to various local informants, three main government departments are formally involved in intelligence gathering in Ethiopia: NISS, the Ethiopian Defense Forces (EDF), and the federal police. While the federal police have wide-ranging law enforcement responsibilities, federal police surveillance capacities are quite limited according to former federal police officials.[77] Together with NISS, the federal police form the joint anti-terrorism task force, although the federal police play a minimal role according to former officials.[78] This task force has been credited for foiling various alleged “terror plots,” many of which led to the detention and subsequent charging of military officers, opposition politicians, and journalists both within Ethiopia and beyond. While federal police, regional police, or EDF soldiers have been present in many of the interrogations where phone records were inappropriately used, the vast majority of cases involved plainclothes security officials from NISS. Typically it is the NISS who most frequently uses copies of phone records and recorded phone calls during interrogations.

Although beyond the scope of this report, various former military officials told Human Rights Watch of the surveillance techniques and technologies used by the EDF. Most EDF intelligence gathering activities appears to be on external military targets whereas NISS focuses more on perceived domestic threats. There appears to be limited cooperation between the EDF and NISS over intelligence operations.

History and Background on Communications Surveillance

Phone wiretapping in its most traditional form involved physically attaching wires to the phone network to listen to private conversations.[79] This tactic has been in common and widespread use by law enforcement around the world for almost as long as phones themselves have been in use. Other devices can be used to capture information about the phone number associated with outgoing or incoming phone calls and time and duration of each call.[80]

Phone calls are connected through exchanges and switches located throughout a telecom network, which was once operated manually until more sophisticated switches were developed. While surveillance and data collection technologies were simple to implement by manually tapping wires or listening at centralized switches, collection and analysis remained time consuming and resource intensive.

Beginning in the 1990s, the widespread transition to digitally switched phone networks and growth of Internet networks made surveillance more complex to implement. However, new laws in the US and Europe boosted the use of wiretapping because it drove standardization of equipment for surveillance and enabled remote tapping of phone lines.[81] In the mid-1990s, the US and European governments began requiring telecommunications operators to make it easier for law enforcement to wiretap digital telephone networks.[82] In part, this took the form of legislation that forced companies to design modern networks and equipment to build in “back doors” that allow “lawful intercept” of communications on a larger scale.[83] This equipment became globally standardized and most telecom equipment sold around the world incorporates a range of surveillance capabilities as a result.[84]

Modern digital technology makes surveillance more powerful and efficient. The move from fixed-line to mobile telephone systems has enabled governments to access and collect a richer store of information about individuals. Mobile operators can enable interception of voice calls and facilitate access to SMS text messages they may retain.[85] Operators also routinely collect and store information that can reveal the location of a mobile phone, though the precision may vary. For billing and other purposes, telecom companies (fixed and mobile) create and maintain “call detail records,” which list phone numbers of incoming and outgoing calls, call time and date, duration of calls, and mobile tower (location) information.[86] Moreover, mobile operators can be compelled to activate Global Positioning System (GPS) chips placed in most “smart phones,” thus revealing the user’s location and enabling prospective location tracking. Because mobile phones and SIM[87] cards each have unique identifiers, such data, when collected in bulk, can be used to create detailed dossiers of communications, associations, and movements over time, tied to specific individuals.[88]

Government surveillance and data collection has also shifted to Internet networks.[89] As the Internet enabled new channels for communicating and accessing information, it has also expanded the range and amount of information that can be monitored. New communications tools like Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) (voice calls made over Internet networks), chat, email, and social media services can be intercepted, though use of encryption can help shield online activity.[90] In addition, all Internet activity results in large amounts of “transactional” or “metadata,” defined broadly as data about online activity.[91] For example, such data could include email addresses contacted, webpages visited, or Internet protocol addresses, or the geographic location of the parties communicating. Governments can collect this information easily by tapping networks or by compelling or asking companies to hand over data. When collected on a large scale, metadata can be highly revealing of a person’s associations, movements, and activities over time.

As Internet access increases, some governments are adopting or compelling use of technologies like “deep packet inspection” (DPI). Deep packet inspection enables the examination of the content of communications (an email or a website) as it is transmitted over an Internet network. Once examined, the communications can be then copied, analyzed, blocked, or even altered.[92] DPI equipment allows Internet service providers—and by extension, governments—to monitor and analyze Internet communications of potentially millions of users in real time.[93] While DPI does have some commercial applications, DPI is also a powerful tool for Internet filtering and blocking and can enable highly intrusive surveillance.[94]

Finally, some governments have begun using intrusion software to infiltrate an individual’s computer or mobile phone. Also known as spyware or malware, such software can allow a government to capture passwords (and other text typed into the device), copy or delete files, and even turn on the microphone or camera of the device to eavesdrop. Such software is often unwittingly downloaded when an individual opens a malicious link or file disguised as a legitimate item of interest to the target.[95]

In the near future, an increasing amount of data about individuals’ communications, associations, location, and activities will be digitized. At the same time, the cost of computing and digital storage will continue to fall, enhancing governments’ ability to collect and analyze electronic information. As access to mobile and Internet services increases, governments will be able to more efficiently and effectively intrude into the most sensitive aspects of peoples’ private lives.

Phone calls, emails, and associations can be a valuable source of evidence to prosecute serious crimes and prevent legitimate threats to national security. However, surveillance and data collection, especially in bulk, is highly invasive of the right to privacy. International law requires surveillance practices to be regulated by law and subject to strong, independent safeguards to ensure they do not arbitrarily interfere with privacy.[96]

[3] Human Rights Watch, “One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure”: Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia, March 24, 2010,

[4] The 2005 elections were marred by serious voting irregularities and a lack of transparency in an election strongly criticized by independent observers. The violent period that followed the 2005 elections resulted in hundreds of deaths, an estimated 30,000 arrests, and charges for treason for many of the opposition leaders. For an overview of the issues surrounding the 2005 election, see Human Rights Watch, “One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure”.

[5] See Human Rights Watch’s 2014 World Report chapter on Ethiopia, which provides an overview of Ethiopia’s human rights record. Human Rights Watch, World Report 2014 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2014), Ethiopia chapter,

[6] Only Somalia and Iran have seen more journalists flee their country than Ethiopia between June 2012 and May 2013. Committee to Protect Journalists, “55 Journalists Forced Into Exile June 1, 2012-May 31, 2013,” 2013, (accessed October 28, 2013).

[7] Committee to Protect Journalists, “55 Journalists Forced Into Exile June 1, 2012-May 31, 2013,” 2013, (accessed October 28, 2013).

[8] Human Rights Watch, Development Without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia, October 19, 2010,

[9] See Human Rights Watch, World Report 2011 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2011), Ethiopia chapter,

[10] Human Rights Watch, “One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure” and Human rights Watch interview #91 (name withheld), Kenya, July 2013.

[11] Human Rights Watch, “One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure” and Human Rights Watch interviews (name withheld), Kenya, July and August 2013.

[12] Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, “Growth and Transformation Plan,” 2010.

[13] Since 2012, Ethiopia has seen large-scale public demonstrations by parts of its Muslim community, which constitutes about a third of the country’s population. The protests stem from the Ethiopian government’s alleged interference in religious affairs. The protests have been met with excessive force from security forces and many have been detained and charged under the anti-terrorism law. See Human Rights Watch, World Report 2013 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2013), Ethiopia chapter, and “Prominent Muslims Detained in Crackdown,” Human Rights Watch news release, August 15, 2012,

[14] Human Rights Watch interview with former government employee # 8, (location withheld), January 2013.

[15] Article 25 of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation enables Ethiopia to designate terrorist organizations. Currently Ginbot 7, OLF, ONLF, al-Shabaab, and al-Qaeda have been designated. Committee to Protect Journalists, “In Ethiopia, anti-terrorism law chills reporting on security,” June 24, 2011, (accessed November 26, 2013).

[16] Amnesty International, “Justice under fire: Trials of opposition leaders, journalists, and human rights defenders in Ethiopia,” July 2011, (accessed March 14, 2014). See Human Rights Watch, “One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure” for more information on the controversial 2005 elections.

[17] Human Rights Watch, Suppressing Dissent: Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression in Ethiopia’s Oromia Region, Vol. 17, No. 7 (A), May 10, 2005,

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Human Rights Watch, Collective Punishment: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity in the Ogaden area of Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State, June 13, 2008,; and International Crisis Group, “Ethiopia: Prospects for Peace in the Ogaden,” August 2013, (accessed February 12, 2014).

[21] Human Rights Watch, Collective Punishment.

[22] Human Rights Watch interview with former government employee # 8, (location withheld), January 2013.

[23] Human Rights Watch interview with former government employee # 22, (location withheld), April 2013.

[24] Human Rights Watch interview with former government employee # 8, (location withheld), January 2013.

[25] Prevention and Suppression of Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism Proclamation 657/2009, art. 12, 25.

[26] Human Rights Watch interview with former government employee # 23, (location withheld), April 2013 and Human Rights Watch interview with former government employee #30, (location withheld), May 2013. The Prevention and Suppression of Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism Proclamation 657/2009 contains overly broad provisions granting surveillance powers over a wide variety of individuals and organizations.

[27] Human Rights Watch interview #99 (name withheld), Kenya, July 2013.

[28] Human Rights Watch interview #31 (name withheld), Kenya, May 2013.

[29] Human Rights Watch/Africa Watch, Evil Days: Thirty Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia (New York: Human Rights Watch, September 1991),

[30] Human Rights Watch interview #33 (name and location withheld), May 2013.

[31] It is unclear why Facebook is an exception although one blogger told Human Rights Watch it was because Facebook is a relatively new technology in Ethiopia and individuals have the perception that their postings are anonymous.

[32] Human Rights Watch interview #48 (name withheld), Kenya, May 2013.

[33] The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a specialized agency of the United Nations tasked with promoting technical interoperability of telecommunications networks. They “allocate global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, develop the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect, and strive to improve access to ICTs to underserved communities worldwide.” International Telecommunication Union (ITU), “Overview,” 2014, (accessed February 12, 2014). Data from ITU’s Ethiopia country profile is available at: ITU, “ITU Regional Office for Africa, Ethiopia,” 2014, (accessed February 12, 2014).

[34] ITU, “Measuring the information Society,” 2012, (accessed March 14, 2014).

[35] Yonas Abiye, “MPs lambast Debretsion over Ethio-telecom’s ‘poor service,’” The Reporter, May 18, 2013, (accessed September 30 2013).

[36] Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) is a satellite-based telephone service that is used to connect small remote areas to the Ethio Telecom infrastructure without the need of physical connection to the infrastructure. Ethiopians can use phones connected by Ethio Telecom offices in remote areas. As mobile coverage increases across Ethiopia, VSAT is being phased out.

[37] According to Internet World Stats, as of December 31, 2012, there were approximately 960,000 Internet users in Ethiopia. Internet World Stats, “Ethiopia,” 2012,

[38] Freedom House, “Freedom on the Net: 2011 Report,” 2011, (accessed February 12, 2014) and ITU, “Measuring the Information Society,” 2012, (accessed February 12, 2014).

[39] According to the ITU, Ethiopian mobile broadband subscriptions have increased from 0.1% in 2010 to 0.3% in 2011.

[40] Global Information Society Watch, “Ethiopia, 2009–Access to Online Information and Knowledge,” 2009, (accessed August 3, 2013). For a discussion of internet costs throughout Africa, see ITU, “Measuring the information Society,” 2012, (accessed March 14, 2014).

[41] Mobile subscribers, according to the Plan, are expected to increase from 6.5 million to 40 million, mobile coverage from 9 percent to 45 percent and Internet users from 187,000 to 3,690,000. The Growth and Transformation Plan is Ethiopia’s economic development blueprint and covers 2010-2015. It contains ambitious growth targets in all key sectors. Ethiopia aims to be a middle income country by 2025.

[42] Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, “Growth and Transformation Plan,” 2010.

[43] While growing in popularity, only 1 percent of Ethiopians are on Facebook (902, 440 people according to Internet World Stats. Internet World Stats, “Ethiopia, Kenya,” 2012, (accessed February 12, 2014). This compares to nearly 5% in Kenya. Facebook users are mostly urban, young and educated.

[44] Ethiopian law criminalizes the commercial use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services (Internet-based voice services), while the government has stated that private use of Skype is still permitted. For a full discussion, see the section below, Internet Filtering.

[45] Paltalk is a video group chat service that allows large numbers of users to communicate via video, Internet voice, and chat. “Paltalk: Features,” Paltalk, undated, (accessed February 11, 2014).

[46] Electoral Reform International Services, “Ethiopia Audience Survey 2011,” 2011, (accessed October 4, 2013).

[47] Janelle Plummer, Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia: Perceptions, Realities, and the Way Forward (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2012), chapter 8, (accessed March 14, 2014).

[48] Andualem Sisay, “Ethiopia Telecom Sector to remain a monopoly,” Africa Review, June 27, 2013, (accessed July 2, 2013).

[49] “Ethiopia expected to join WTO in 2015: ministry,” Reuters, July 2, 2013, (accessed August 13, 2013).

[50] ZTE first entered Ethiopia in 1996. See Zhao Lili, “Contributing to the Development of Ethiopia with Wisdom and Strength,” ZTE Tech, June 12, 2009, (accessed February 12, 2014).

[51] See Lishan Adam, “Ethiopia ICT Sector Performance Review 2009/2010,” Research ICT Africa, 2010, (accessed February 12, 2014).

[52]Experiences in a range of countries show a strong connection between telecom privatization and rapid expansion of telecom infrastructure while various studies show a positive relationship between the expansion of telecom infrastructure and economic growth. See Carsten Fink, Aaditya Mattoo, and Randeep Rathindran (Development Research Group, World Bank), “An assessment of telecommunications reform in developing countries,” Information Economics and Policy, no. 15 (2003), pp. 443-466. See also Lars-Henrick Roller and Leonard Waverman, “Telecommunications Infrastructure and Economic Development: A Simultaneous Approach,” The American Economic Review, vol. 91, no. 4 (2001), pp. 909-923 and Anusa Datta and Sumit Agarwal, “Telecommunications and economic growth: a panel data approach,” Applied Economics, vol. 36 (2004), pp. 1649-1654.

[53] Andualem Sisay, “Ethiopia Telecom Sector to remain a monopoly,” Africa Review, June 27, 2013, (accessed July 2, 2013) and Freedom House, “Freedom on the Net: 2011 report,” 2011, (accessed March 14, 2014).

[54] “ETC contracts Chinese trio for fixed and mobile expansion,” TeleGeography, September 11, 2006, (accessed March 14, 2014).

[55] See Plummer, Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia. See also, Zhao Lili, “Contributing to the Development of Ethiopia with Wisdom and Strength.”

[56] See ZTE Corp Snapshot, Bloomberg Businessweek, undated, (accessed February 12, 2014).

[57] Zhao Lili, “Contributing to the Development of Ethiopia with Wisdom and Strength.”

[58] Plummer, Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia; Lynn Hartley and Michael Murphree, “Influences on the Partial Liberalization of Internet Service Provision in Ethiopia,” 2006, (accessed March 19, 2014).

[59] Regulation 197/2010 Establishment of Ethio Telecom, governed by Public Enterprises Proclamation 25, 1992. Shareholders voted to formally rebrand France Telecom as Orange in 2013. Daniel Thomas, “France Telecom changes name to Orange,” Financial Times, May 29, 2013, (accessed March 17, 2014).

[60] Letter from Brigitte Dumont, Chief Officer, Group Corporate Responsibility, Orange, to Human Rights Watch, November 19, 2013.

[61] Business Process Re-Engineering (BPR) is the process of reorganizing how a company or public institution works, reviewing procedures, and reevaluating staff. For more information on Ethiopia’s BPR program see Human Rights Watch, Development without Freedom.

[62] Human Rights Watch interviews, Kenya, Uganda, and United States, 2013.

[63] Meron Tekleberhan, “France Telecom Hands Over Administration of Ethio Telecom,” 2Merkato, January 4, 2013, (accessed February 12, 2014).

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ethio Telecom, “The Management Contract with France Telecom Concluded,” January 2, 2013, (accessed February 12, 2014).

[66] “Ethio Telecom Seeking New vendor Financers for Expansion,” Addis Fortune, June 26, 2011, (accessed February 12, 2014).

[67] “Ethiopia signs $700 mln mobile network deal with China’s Huawei,” Reuters, July 25, 2013, (accessed February 12, 2014).

[68] See Ethiopian Telecommunications Agency-List of Licenses at: Ethiopian Telecommunications Agency, “Licenses,” undated, (accessed February 12, 2014).

[69] UN Public Administration Network, “WoredNet-Ethiopian Government Network,” undated, (accessed March 14, 2014).

[70] “Over 950 Woredas, Offices Benefit from Woredanet Project, Says Ministry of Information and Technology,” Waltainfo, April 19, 2013, (accessed February 12, 2014); World Bank, “World Bank Provides US$50 Million for Public Service Delivery Improvement, Citizen Empowerment, and Good Governance Promotion in Ethiopia,” March 23, 2010, (accessed March 19, 2014); Harry Hare, “Survey of ICT in Education in Ethiopia,” Survey of ICT and Education in Africa, (Washington, DC: infoDev/World Bank, 2007),; (accessed November 8, 2013), p. Ethiopia-6; Lynn Hartley and Michael Murphree, “Influences on the Partial Liberalization of Internet Service Provision in Ethiopia,” 2006, (accessed March 19, 2014).

[71] See Jason Deign, “Ethiopia Telecom's Next Generation Network Supports a Nation's Economic Transformation,” News@Cisco, January 18, 2005, (accessed February 12, 2014); Cisco, “Ethiopia Accelerates National Development Through Information and Communications Technology,” undated, (accessed February 12, 2014).

[72] Proclamation to Provide for the Definition of Powers and Duties of the Executive Organs of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, No. 691/2010.

[73] Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, “About MCIT,” undated, (accessed April 8, 2013).

[74] Human Rights Watch interviews, #11, 49, and 51, (locations withheld), July and August 2013.

[75] National Intelligence and Security Service Re-Establishment Proclamation No.804/2013.

[76] Pursuant to Regulation 250-1011, Information Network Security Agency Re-establishment Council of Ministers Regulation.

[77] Federal Police Commission Proclamation # 313/2003.

[78] Human Rights Watch interview with former federal police official #11,(location withheld), February 2013.

[79] See Tom Harris, “How Wiretapping Works,”, May 8, 2001,

[80] Electronic Frontier Foundation, “Pen Registers” and “Trap and Trace Devices,” Surveillance Self Defense, undated,

[81] See Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau, “Internet Eavesdropping: A Brave New World of Wiretapping,” Scientific American, August 22, 2008,

[82] Council Resolution of 17 January 1995 on the lawful interception of telecommunications, Official Journal C 329, at 0001 (Nov. 4, 1996), (accessed February 12, 2014); Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (CALEA), Pub. L. No. 103-414, 108 Stat. 4279 (Oct. 25, 1994), codified at 47 U.S.C. §§1001-10, (accessed February 12, 2014).

[83] “Lawful intercept” is an industry term that refers broadly to processes and technologies that enable law enforcement access to communications content on telecom networks. However, the exact contours of what is required (and under what legal process) will be defined differently in each jurisdiction. Use of the term does not necessarily imply that the surveillance itself is lawful under national law or international human rights law.

[84] Lawful intercept requirements in the US and Europe drove the global market for intercept-capable network equipment, while other countries began adopting similar lawful intercept laws.

[85] For background on mobile surveillance and network architecture, see Vassilis Prevelakis and Diomidis Spinellis, “The Athens Affair,” IEEE Spectrum, June 29, 2007,

[86] See for example, Aubra Anthony, “Call Detail Records: 'Does the NSA Know Where You Are?'” post to “Policy Beta” (blog), Center for Democracy & Technology, July 10, 2013, (accessed March 14, 2014).

[87] A Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card is a portable chip used mostly in cell phones that operate on the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) networks. The SIM card identifies and authenticates devices and subscribers on a cellular network.

[88] See Jessica Leber, “Mobile Call Logs Can Reveal a Lot to the NSA,” MIT Technology Review, June 18, 2013, (accessed March 14, 2914; Ethan Zuckerman, “Me and my metadata – thoughts on online surveillance,” post to “...My Heart's in Accra” (blog), July 3, 2013, (accessed March 14, 2914).

[89] See UN Human Rights Council (HRC), Report of the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, (Hereinafter, “Report of the special rapporteur on surveillance”), U.N. Doc A/HRC/23/40, April 17, 2013, (accessed February 10, 2014).

[90] For example, using “https://” encryption when browsing websites that support the feature can help prevent eavesdroppers on the network from seeing the online content the user is viewing.

[91] See, “A Guardian Guide to Your Metadata,” The Guardian, June 12, 2013,

[92] In an analogy to physical mail delivery, an ISP (or government) using DPI would be the equivalent of the postal service opening an envelope to examine the contents of the letter inside, rather than limiting the ISP’s role to examining the addresses on the outside of the envelope in order to deliver it to its destination.

[93] For background on DPI, see Alissa Cooper, “Doing the DPI Dance: Assessing the Privacy Impact of Deep Packet Inspection,” in Privacy in America: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, ed. W. Aspray and P. Doty (Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow Press, 2011), .

[94] ISPs often use DPI to manage congestion on their network or to block spam and malware. However, there are less intrusive ways to achieve these aims. Ibid.

[95] See Morgan Marquis-Boire, Bill Marczak, Claudio Guarnieri, and John Scott-Railton, “For Their Eyes Only: The Commercialization of Digital Spying,” Citizen Lab, April 30, 2013, (accessed March 14, 2014).

[96] Report of the special rapporteur on surveillance.