Voice of America (Washington, DC)

Ethiopia Accused of Using Spyware Against Citizens Living Abroad

Photo: Borja Santos Porra/RNW
A refugee camp registration office

Washington — 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.

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A refugee camp registration office

A man has filed a lawsuit in a U.S. court against the Ethiopian government claiming to have been spied on with the intention of gathering intelligence. Read more »