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Ethiopia: Telecom Surveillance Chills Rights

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.”

Source: Human Rights Watch

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