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The Simplest Step Ethiopians Can Take to Protect Themselves From Excessive Gov't Surveillance

BY Jessica McKenzie | Friday, June 20 2014

The Ethiopian government has at their disposal a formidable collection of surveillance technologies, and can intrusively monitor writers and activists at home and abroad. In late April the government arrested six independent bloggers and a journalist. More than 50 days later they are still being held in custody, and yet no formal charges have been filed. In March Human Rights Watch published a lengthy and detailed report warning that surveillance in Ethiopia could get even worse if the government gains the human capacity necessary to fully leverage the available technologies.

One of the most invasive and potentially life-threatening things that can happen to an Ethiopian blogger, journalist, activist or dissident is to unwittingly download malware that allows the government to monitor keystrokes and passwords, to remotely turn on a computer's microphone or camera and start recording, and to extract data from the hard drive. The simplest step Ethiopians can take to protect themselves is to limit the number of documents they download from the Internet. One way to do this is by opening documents as Google Docs.

Until recently, however, Google Docs did not support the Ethiopian language Amharic. Now that they do (and it seems a simple and easy thing to add), Ethiopians have a powerful tool with which to protect themselves from unlawful and intrusive government surveillance.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has an excellent post explaining how to enable Amharic in Google products, and why Ethiopians should use it (namely, if they are worried about their own government's surveillance but not concerned that Google will supply their data to US court orders).

I have previously written for techPresident about Angolan investigative journalist Rafael Marques, who discovered intrusive malware on his computer with help from hacker and activist Jacob Appelbaum. Months after the discovery Marques was arrested and beaten.

One of the most relevant points Marques makes is that the malware doesn't need to be sophisticated because the authorities know or anticipate that he does not have the resources to buy a new, clean computer and to thoroughly protect it.

Is the Google Doc trick infallible? Almost certainly not, but it is a free, easy way for Ethiopians to protect themselves. Think of it like wearing a seatbelt in cyberspace.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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