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Surveillance in Ethiopia Is Bad Now, But Human Rights Watch Report Warns It Could Get Worse

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, April 1 2014

A grassroots surveillance network stretches even to remote rural areas (Adam Jones / Flickr)

Last week Human Rights Watch published a 100+ page report on government surveillance in Ethiopia that explains how the authorities use technology from countries like China, Germany and Italy to spy on opposition members, dissidents and journalists, even after they flee the country.

Ethiopia's Information Minister, Redwan Hussein, dismissed the report. “There is nothing new to respond to,” Hussein said, according to the AFP.

Felix Horne, who co-authored the HRW report with Cynthia Wong, told techPresident that is simply not true.

“[Ethiopian authorities] often castigate HRW for their coverage on Ethiopia,” Horne said.

“There's always been a perception [in Ethiopia] that phone calls and email are monitored,” Horne explained, but they did not have the evidence until recently, or a good idea of how it was used.

The government, Horne said, "has completely unfettered access to the metadata of all phone calls, and can record calls at the click of a mouse.”

The report details how the information gleaned from phone calls—both metadata and content—is being used against people for offenses as small as talking politics with your brother.

Not all of this technology is new and cutting-edge. In 2011, reporter Jennifer Valentino-Devries looked into the “off the shelf” surveillance market for the Wall Street Journal. By 2012, the Journal had pulled together a “catalog” of the kind of technologies available to governments around the world. They also posted attendance sheets from surveillance industry trade conferences.

(In 2011, Jerry Lucas, whose company runs a surveillance trade show, told the Journal "We don't really get into asking, 'Is this in the public interest?'")

Between 2007 and 2009, the Ethiopian Ministry of Defense, Information Network Security Agency, Ministry of the Interior, and the Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission attended four industry conferences, where they could attend training sessions on “exploiting computer and mobile vulnerabilities for electronic surveillance” and meet with representatives of companies like FinFisher, which was boasting about being able to monitor Skype calls as early as 2011.

University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, which collaborated with HRW on research for the Ethiopia report, has found servers for FinSpy, one of FinFishers surveillance products, in 25 countries, including Ethiopia.

The most advanced tool the Ethiopian government has probably acquired since 2012 is ZTE's ZSMT monitoring system, which can centralize surveillance across multiple platforms: phone lines, mobile networks and the Internet. I write "probably" because ZTE, a Chinese telecom giant, would not confirm the purchase to HRW.

"The technical capacity of surveillance is very high,” Horne said, “but what they're doing with it is somewhat limited by a lack of human capacity—how to effectively use the tools—and a lack of trust between key government departments. But the net effect is the same. When people have a perception that they are being watched, they self-censor.”

Horne added that sometimes he calls someone in the country and they use “so many code words that 10 minutes in you don't understand what you're talking about.”

Many of the surveillance tactics described in the report sound downright thuggish, like forcing people to give up their phone and email or social media passwords upon arrest. A police officer explained to Horne and Wong that they simply do not need to use technology because they have a sprawling network of informants. “We know everything,” the officer said. “Nothing happens without someone knowing.”

But, hypothetically, if they didn't know where someone was? The officer explains it is as simple as calling the federal police and having them get in touch with Ethio Telecom, the sole telecom company in Ethiopia, and they will provide the person's location.

This is not really a story about cutting-edge cyber tools run amok—not yet at least. Internet penetration in Ethiopia is still less than two percent.

This is mostly a story about a country with a state-owned telecom monopoly, a robust network of informants, even in largely disconnected rural areas, a lack of privacy protections for its citizens, and a history of human rights abuses.

However, the report warns that that could be just the beginning: “Ethiopians may increasingly experience far more prevalent unlawful use of phone and email surveillance should the government’s human capacity increase.”

“One of our big asks,” said Horne, “is that these kinds of technologies be included in lists of things that might require an export license.”

That and, to paraphrase nearly two pages of recommendations for the government of Ethiopia, “Will you pretty please start respecting the rights of your citizens?”

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