By Human Rights Watch Press
Published March 11, 2015
The Government of Ethiopia has renewed its efforts to silence independent voices abroad.
Calling upon Ethiopian authorities to cease digital attack on journalists, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also appealed to sellers of foreign surveillance technology to investigate alleged abuse linked to their products.
This has come in the wake of reports from the Toronto (Canada)-based research centre, Citizen Lab, on March 9, 2015 that Addis Ababa was attempting to hack into computers and accounts of Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) employees based in the United States of America. ESAT is an independent, Diaspora-run television and radio station.
“Ethiopia’s government has over the past year intensified its assault on media freedom by systematically trying to silence journalists,” said Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher at HRW. “These digital attacks threaten journalists’ ability to protect the safety of their sources and to avoid retaliation.”
The government has repressed independent media in Ethiopia ahead of the general elections scheduled for May 2015, HRW says. Many privately-owned print publications heavily self-censor coverage of politically-sensitive issues or have shut down. In the last year, at least 22 journalists, bloggers, and publishers have been criminally charged, at least six publications have closed amid a campaign of harassment, and many journalists have fled the country.
Many Ethiopians turn to ESAT and other foreign stations to obtain news and analysis that is independent of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. However, intrusive surveillance of these news organisations undermines their ability to protect sources and further restricts the media environment. HRW says Ethiopian authorities have repeatedly intimidated, harassed, and arbitrarily detained sources providing information to ESAT and other foreign stations.
Citizen Lab’s analysis that was released on March 9, 2015 suggests the attacks were carried out with spyware called Remote Control System (RCS) sold by the Italian firm Hacking Team, which sells surveillance and hacking technology. This spyware was allegedly used in previous attempts to infect computers of ESAT employees in December 2013. If successfully installed on a target’s computer, the spyware would allow a government controlling the software access to activity on a computer or phone, including email, files, passwords typed into the device, contact lists, and audio and video from the device’s microphone and camera.
Citizen Lab also found that the spyware used in the attacks against ESAT appeared to have been updated as recently as December 2014. On November 19, 2014 a security researcher, Claudio Guarnieri, along with several Non-Governmental Organisations, publicly released a tool called Detekt, which can be used to scan computers for Hacking Team RCS and other spyware. Citizen Lab’s testing determined that Detekt was able to successfully recognise the version of RCS used in a November attack, but not the version used in a December attack. Citizen Lab concluded that this may indicate that the software had been updated sometime between the two attempts.
These new findings raise serious concerns that Hacking Team has not addressed evidence of abuse of its product by the Ethiopian government and may be continuing to facilitate that abuse through updates or other support, HRW says.
Hacking Team states that it sells exclusively to governments, particularly law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The firm told HRW in 2014 that ‘we expect our clients to behave responsibly and within the law as it applies to them’ and that the firm will suspend support for its technology if it believes the customer has used it ‘to facilitate gross human rights abuses’ or ‘who refuse to agree to or comply with provisions in [the company’s] contracts that describe intended use of HT [Hacking Team] software.’Hacking Team has also stated that it has suspended support for their product in the past, in which case the ‘product soon becomes useless.’
Media reports and research by independent human rights organizations in the past year have documented serious human rights violations by the Ethiopian government that at times have been facilitated by misuse of surveillance powers. Although spyware companies market their products as ‘lawful intercept’ solutions used to fight serious crime or counter-terrorism, the Ethiopian government has abused its counter-terrorism laws to prosecute bloggers and journalists who merely report on public affairs or politically-sensitive issues. Ethiopian laws that authorize surveillance do not adequately protect the right to privacy, due process, and other basic rights, and are inconsistent with international human rights requirements.
Hacking Team previously told HRW that ‘to maintain their confidentiality’ the firm does not ‘confirm or deny the existence of any individual customer or their country location.’
On February 25, 2015, HRW wrote to the firm to ask whether it has investigated possible abuse of its products by the Ethiopian government to target independent media and hack into ESAT computers. In response, on March 6, 2015, a representative of the firm emailed HRW that the company ‘take[s] precautions with every client to assure that they do not abuse our systems, and, we investigate when allegations of misuse arise’ and that the firm is ‘attempting to understand the circumstances in this case.’