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

Polls Open in Scotland Independence Vote

As race to persuade undecided voters continues, 'No' voters say they believe life in Scotland will slowly improve, 'Yes' vote not worth the risk More

China-India Border Standoff Continues as Leaders Hold Summit

New Delhi accuses hundreds of Chinese soldiers of illegally entering Indian territory in disputed region of Ladakh More

Ukrainian Activist in Despair About Future of Her Country

IrIna Dovgan, accused of being a spy and tortured by pro-Russian separatists, is appealing to UN Human Rights Council to support her country More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Wateri
X
September 17, 2014 8:44 PM
Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid