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Spyware vendor may have helped Ethiopia target journalists – even after it was aware of abuses, researchers say

Washington Post
By Andrea Peterson
March 9,2015

(Reuters/Kacper Pempel/Files)
(Reuters/Kacper Pempel/Files)

The Ethiopian government appears again to be using Internet spying tools to attempt to eavesdrop on journalists based in suburban Washington, said security researchers who call such high-tech intrusions a serious threat to human rights and press freedoms worldwide.

The journalists, who work for Ethiopian Satellite Television in Alexandria, Va., provide one of the few independent news sources to their homeland through regular television and radio feeds — to the irritation of the government there, which has accused journalists of “terrorism” and repeatedly jammed the signals of foreign broadcasters.

The struggle increasingly has stretched into cyberspace, where malicious software sold to governments for law enforcement purposes has been observed targeting the journalists, researchers said. The most recent documented case, from December, came several months after The Washington Post first detailed the government’s apparent deployment of the Internet spying tools, which though far cruder, offer some of the same snooping capabilities enjoyed by the National Security Agency and the intelligence services of other advanced nations.

“This is the second round of coordinated attempts at installing spyware so they can monitor our systems and uncover who our sources are inside of the Ethiopia,” said Neamin Zeleke, the managing director of Ethiopian Satellite Television, which is commonly known as ESAT. “This is a really tenacious attempt to crack down on freedom of expression.”

Zeleke became suspicious when a message arrived in his inbox in December with an attachment claiming to have information about upcoming elections. Normally, that’s the sort of information ESAT is eager to get its hands on: Ethiopia is ruled by a government notoriously unfriendly to the press — leaving much of the independent journalism on local affairs to outfits such as ESAT that operate outside of the country but rely on sources from inside Ethiopia.

But editors and reporters at ESAT have become wary of e-mails from unknown senders in recent years — and for good reason.

In 2013, the computer of one of Zeleke’s colleagues was infected with malware after the colleague opened what appeared to be a Microsoft Word file. They later learned that it was probably a commercial spying tool sold to governments around the world by the Italy-based vendor Hacking Team, according to researchers at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

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