Ethiopia: Telecom Surveillance Chills Rights

Foreign Technology Used to Spy on Opposition inside Country, Abroad

(Berlin) – The Ethiopian government is using foreign technology to bolster its widespread telecom surveillance of opposition activists and journalists both in Ethiopia and abroad, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

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. [please continue on next page]

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