News / Africa

Ethiopia Accused of Using Spyware Against Citizens Living Abroad

Ethiopian refugee Tadesse Kersmo talks to the media at the London offices of Privacy International Monday, Feb. 17, 2014.
Ethiopian refugee Tadesse Kersmo talks to the media at the London offices of Privacy International Monday, Feb. 17, 2014.
Peter Heinlein
Several Ethiopians living abroad are accusing their home government of using sophisticated computer spyware to hack into their computers and monitor their private communications. One Washington area man has filed a federal suit against the Ethiopian government, and another has filed a complaint with British police.
 
The Ethiopian native, who is a U.S. citizen, charges that agents used a program called FinSpy to monitor his emails, Skype calls and his web browsing history. A suit filed in Federal District Court in Washington Tuesday asks that Ethiopia be named as being behind the cyber-attacks and pay damages of $10,000.
 
The suit includes an affidavit asking that the plaintiff’s name be kept secret.
 
Attorney Richard Martinez of the law firm Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Cirese helped to prepare the suit. Martinez told VOA the unusual request for anonymity was made because the individual fears that he and family members still in Ethiopia could be in danger if he is identified.
 
"We have petitioned the court to proceed anonymously because this individual is very active within the Ethiopian diaspora community and we think the action taken by the Ethiopian government against him illustrates exactly the attention they’ve placed on him and the danger that exists for him," said Martinez.
 
The suit is the latest in a series of cyber spying accusations against the Addis Ababa government. In another case, an Ethiopian refugee in London is asking British police to investigate evidence that FinSpy software known as “FinFisher” was used to hack his computer.
 
Tadesse Kersmo, who identified himself as a member of the executive committee of the Ethiopian opposition group Ginbot 7, filed a complaint Monday asking for a probe of Gamma Group, a Britain-based company that produces the FinFisher software.
 
Kersmo told a news conference he became suspicious after files from his computer began appearing on the Internet, and found evidence it had been infected with FinSpy.
 
Much of the evidence linking Ethiopia to cyberspying has been developed by a Canadian organization called Citizen Lab. Bill Marczak, a researcher for Citizen Lab, told VOA that investigators first linked Ethiopia to cyber spyware nearly a year ago.
 
"Ethiopia first came across our radar at Citizen Lab in March/April 2013, when we were doing a global study looking at the proliferation of FinFisher, the commercial espionage software which is sold exclusively to governments by a German company called FinFisher GMBH. This technology is spyware that can be installed on a targeted computer giving governments operating it full access to a computer so they can make files, record passwords and keystrokes, and even turn on the computer’s webcam and microphone,” said Marczak.
 
Marczak said Citizen Lab’s investigation has also led it to an Italian firm called Hacking Team, which has been labeled by the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders on a list of what are called “Corporate Enemies.” A Citizen Lab report released this month suggests that Hacking Team software has been used to spy on U.S.-based journalists from Ethiopia.
 
Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti told VOA his government does not engage in computer hacking.
 
"There is freedom of speech, everyone is entitled to his opinion, and that is something that is at the core of our rules and procedures. There is freedom of expression, and the hacking business is not our business. As for the allegation that the journalists are coming up with, I cannot say anything now," said Mufti.
 
Marczak said companies like Hacking Team and FinSpy offer confidentiality to their clients, leaving cyber detectives the difficult task of sorting out who is spying on who.
 
However, he maintained that it is clear someone is spying on journalists of Ethiopian origin and others identified with the country’s opposition, and despite its denial, the government is the most likely suspect.
 
“This is part of a pattern we’ve seen whenever we’ve exposed activists or journalists being targeted… The government is always the first to deny it and say ‘Oh we didn’t do that. It could have been anyone, we have no reason to use these products.’ The fact is, the Ethiopian government does have reason to be using these products. There’s a very strong and robust diaspora movement in Ethiopia, and the government is blind and clueless in the movement so they’re desperately looking for informants, eyes and ears in the movement, and to unmask people’s contacts and infiltrate these social networks,” said Marczak.
 
Marczak also said evidence has been found linking software supplied by Hacking Team and FinSpy to more than a dozen countries, including Ethiopia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Bahrain.
 
A Hacking Team policy statement posted on the Internet said the company understands the potential for abuse of the surveillance technologies they produce, and takes precautions to limit that potential. The lengthy statement said Hacking Team has established an outside panel of technical experts and legal advisers to review potential sales. The company does not sell its products to any country blacklisted by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations or NATO. Ethiopia is not named on those blacklists.

You May Like

Myanmar Fighting Poses Dilemma for China

To gain some insight into conflict, VOA’s Steve Herman spoke with Min Zaw Oo, director of ceasefire negotiation and implementation at Myanmar Peace Center More

Australia Concerned Over Islamic State 'Brides'

Canberra believes there are between 30 and 40 Australian women who have taken part in terror attacks or are supporting the Islamic State terror network More

Recreational Marijuana Use Now Legal in Washington, DC

Law allows adults 21 and over to privately possess and smoke 0.05 kilogram of pot, and to grow small amounts of the plant More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More