February 15, 2015 Ethiopian Intelligence Network: Who is behind the growth?
New Delhi Times Bureau
Ethiopia is a low income country with a population of just under 92 million people. The country has since 1991 been under one party rule of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Dissidents who use the internet to criticise the one party rule have been accused of promoting terrorism and have been subjected to strict surveillance. According to Human Rights Watch, the increasing technological ability of Ethiopians to communicate, express their views, and organise, is viewed less as a social benefit and more as a political threat for the ruling party, which depends upon invasive monitoring and surveillance to maintain control of its population. Ethiopia regularly blocks websites, undertakes surveillance of websites and social media, and charges journalists over content published offline and online.
The country’s laws provide for legal sanctions against individuals for content they publish online, or the ‘illegal use’ of telecoms services. Such charges have often been framed as ‘promoting terrorism’, which can attract a 20 year jail term. Thus, the country has been creating a speedily expanding, state-of-the-art surveillance state, with tacit Western back up.
Rumors of the extent of Ethiopia’s digital surveillance and censorship state have echoed around the information security community for years. Journalists have spoken of being shown text messages, printouts of emails, and recordings of their own telephone conversations by the Ethiopian security services. From within the country, commentators connected growing telecommunications surveillance to the increasing presence of East telecommunications company ZTE.
On the external front, analysis of the targeted surveillance of exiled Ethiopians has turned up surveillance software built and sold by Western companies, such as FinFisher and Hacking Team. Observers of the country’s national Internet censorship have reported keyword filtering of websites and blocking of Tor nodes that reveal a sophisticated national firewall conducting deep packet inspection. Ethiopia’s position as an American ally also gives it the opportunity to purchase technology made in the West to carry out its campaigns of censorship and surveillance. Ethiopia has also bolstered its surveillance capabilities with drones built by Israeli company Bluebird Systems.
However, it is widely believed that Ethiopians have not developed the surveillance network using the available resources in the country. Indeed it is even futile to think that a third world country like it, which does not have enough resources to feed its poverty stricken population will invest heavily in surveillance technology.
There are many who believe that West is funding such programs. However, on a more detailed look, it looks as if East technology is behind the program.
Screenshots of extra fields on ZTE’s ZSmart customer relations management tool appear to show that Ethiopia’s telco administrators can check customers against a “blacklist,” and digitally record calls with the press of a single button.
These features could simply be a result of Ethiopia’s censorship team quickly adopting new techniques — or it could mean that Ethiopia is one of the few countries that benefits from the direct export of Great Firewall technology. In the case of Ethiopia, there have been reports that East is training the surveillance team for as period of six months and then using it for own proxy intelligence. Whether or not the activities of such companies represent cybersecurity concerns – these rapid changes in Africa’s media and telecommunications sphere are an overlooked and illustrative example of the impacts and influences of a rising East, which warrant greater study and attention from policymakers and civil society in Africa and elsewhere, in particular those who are keen to ensure both increased cooperation and connectivity and free and secure communications among citizens.