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

Captured IS Militants Explain Why They Fought

Fighters from Turkey, Syria tell VOA Kurdish Service what drew them to extremism, jihad More

Security Experts Split on Kenyan Barrier Wall

Experts divided on whether initiative aiming to keep out al-Shabab militants is long-awaited solution or misguided effort More

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Officials say they hope to turn Manila into the next Macau, which has long been Asia’s gambling hub More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

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