Ethiopia has virtually unlimited access to its citizens’ phone records, thanks to China-made surveillance technology, according to a new report.
A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, “They Know Everything We Do”: Telecom and Internet Surveillance in Ethiopia, based on more than 100 interviews with victims of abuse and former intelligence officials, says the authorities use access to mobile data and call recordings to harass and arrest people they believe oppose the government.
Recorded phone calls with family members and friends – particularly those with foreign phone numbers-are played during abusive interrogations in which people are often accused of belonging to banned organizations. Phone networks have been shut down during peaceful protests and protesters’ locations have been pinpointed using information from their mobile phones. Intercepted emails and phone calls have been submitted as evidence in trials under the country’s anti-terrorism law.
Ethiopia’s telecommunication is monopolized by state-owned Ethio Telecom. A sim card can only be obtained in Ethiopia after registering personal details, making it easy for the government to identify domestic callers, according to HRW.
Spyware developed by British, German, and Italian companies has also been used to target Ethiopians living abroad. It gives security and intelligence agencies practically unfettered access to files, information, and activity on the target’s computer. This software, used to target Ethiopians living in the United Kingdom, the United States, Norway and Switzerland, has been used to capture Skype conversations that have appeared on pro-government websites.
A US citizen of Ethiopian origin filed a lawsuit against the Ethiopian government in February, saying his computer had been hacked and he had been spied on for more than four months.
In another case, an Ethiopian refugee in London has asked British police to investigate evidence that FinSpy software known as “FinFisher” was used to hack his computer.
Getachew Redda, an adviser to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, rejected the Human Rights Watch report. He said the government “would not waste resources in eavesdropping conversations of opposition figures”, adding that HRW had “made it a habit to accuse Ethiopia of almost everything that goes wrong in the region” and it has a “negative knee-jerk reaction about any developments in the country”.
In February, Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Mufti told Voice of America (VOA) that his government did 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.”