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

BY Jessica McKenzie

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

 

(TECH PRESIDENT)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. [nextpage]

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