I met Abdi (not his real name), a 32-year-old primary school teacher from Ethiopia’s Oromia region, last July while in Nairobi. Abdi had been arrested a year earlier in his hometown for organizing a protest against local government corruption. He was already under the eye of Ethiopian security officials because he refused to provide information on the activities of his students to local authorities.
Over the course of two weeks in detention, Abdi was repeatedly beaten and accused of belonging to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which originated in nationalist movements fighting for increased autonomy in the 1960s. The Ethiopian government considers the OLF a terrorist organization and uses the threat of an armed struggle to justify repression of ordinary Oromos, who constitute Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.
The harassment continued after Abdi was released. Eventually, like thousands of other Ethiopians, he felt compelled to flee to Kenya, leaving behind his wife and two children. After some time in Kenya he called home and spoke to his wife, who told him that security officials had been harassing her since he left. That was the last time he spoke to her.
Abdi later learned from neighbors that security officials came to their house hours after his call, demanding to know who was calling her from Kenya and accusing her of being in contact with rebel operatives there. He no longer calls Ethiopia and does not know the whereabouts of his family.
Abdi’s story is not unique. In the last two decades, tens of thousands of Ethiopians have fled their country because of government repression or limited economic opportunities. Most of these migrants, especially those living in neighboring African countries, fear that if they communicate with their families back home, their calls will be traced and their relatives will face repercussions. As new research by Human Rights Watch shows, their fears are well founded. The fear that permeates the lives of many inside Ethiopia has been successfully exported to other countries.
The state-run Ethio Telecom is the sole provider of phone and Internet services in Ethiopia. The Chinese telecom equipment and systems company ZTE is helping Ethiopia modernize its telecommunications infrastructure. The Ethiopian government uses a Chinese-developed telecom system to monitor and control the communications of its citizens and to silence dissenters both in Ethiopia and abroad. Security officials have unlimited access to the phone records of everyone in the country who owns a phone. During abusive interrogations, security officials often play back recorded phone calls to people in their custody. Those calling or receiving calls from foreign numbers are particularly at risk of reprisals by a government keen to punish those it considers a threat.
But Ethiopia goes even further to monitor dissenting voices outside its borders. The government has acquired and is using commercially available European-made spyware — namely the U.K.- and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and the Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System — to monitor dissenters in other countries, effectively extending its surveillance capabilities far beyond its borders. These tools provide security and intelligence agencies with full access to files and activity on an infected target’s computer. They can log keystrokes and passwords and switch on a device’s webcam and microphone, turning a computer anywhere in the world into a listening device. Ethiopian expats, including those living in the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway and Switzerland, have become targets of this global espionage.
In late 2012, security officials detained the wife of Yohannes Alemu, a Norwegian citizen and member of a banned opposition group, as she was visiting family in Addis Ababa. They questioned her about her husband’s political connections. Then the security officials demanded information from Yohannes via phone and email about his opposition party colleagues. He refused; after 20 days his wife was finally released and returned to Norway.
But the incident did not end there.
One of the emails he received contained an attachment infected with FinFisher spyware. Once he had downloaded this spyware, the Ethiopian security agencies had unfettered access to all the information on his computer.
While people around the world are right to be shocked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance by the U.S. government, they should also be concerned that repressive governments such as Ethiopia’s are purchasing and using advanced technologies to target independent voices beyond their borders. The export and use of these European-made commercial products remains virtually unregulated. This is particularly worrying given that evidence exists that similar technologies may be in the hands of authoritarian regimes throughout the world.
These technologies enable repressive governments to monitor dissenting voices in other countries — even in countries where privacy rights are stronger and legal protections are in place to limit state-sponsored surveillance.
The United States, European Union and other donors that together provide an estimated $4 billion in annual aid to Ethiopia should take concerted steps to stop this abuse. They should support global efforts to regulate the export and use of such technologies to governments with poor human rights records. African governments should also speak out and make it clear to Ethiopia that it is an infringement on basic rights to use these technologies to spy on citizens outside of Ethiopia’s borders — people who are all too often seeking protection from repression back home.