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

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?”

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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