Spyware is being used to spy on Ethiopian dissidents – VOA

(VOA) – No sooner had he read the email than the Ethiopian activist Henok Gabisa realized that something was wrong. The message contained spyware intended to infect his computer and paralyze his activity as an opponent of the Addis Ababa government.

The header line was entitled “Democracy in Ethiopia: Can it be saved?” A message apparently tailor-made for him. But this law professor at the American University of Washington and Lee also noticed that the text was written in vague terms and contained a suspicious hyperlink.

Henok had just been targeted by the same type of spyware that was sent to hundreds of Ethiopian dissidents around the world, probably at the instigation of the Ethiopian government, according to a report released last week by Citizen Lab, a Center for Cyber ​​Security at the Canadian University of Toronto.

Ethiopian power is under intense pressure inside the country after the two main ethnic groups, the Oromo and the Amhara, launched massive anti-government protests in 2015 and 2016.

The brutal crackdown has claimed more than 940 lives according to an official report, and has led to the arrest of more than 26,000 people according to the UN, including political activists and journalists.

But the regime’s most outspoken critics live outside the country and are thus sheltered from the Ethiopian security apparatus, particularly among the large diaspora in the United States, which has some 250,000 members.

Facing them, Ethiopia is using spyware and would even physically monitor dissidents on the ground of the United States, without the authorities of this country do not do much to prevent these actions, according to researchers and a lawyer interviewed by AFP.

“There is no other case where I can think of where there has been such an endless series of hacking attempts,” says Bill Marczak, a researcher at Citizen Lab.

Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) and Oromia Media Network (OMN), based in the United States, make little sense of their opposition to a regime that has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1991.

Enmity is mutual. Ethiopia banned the two broadcasting channels on its territory during the 10-month state of emergency declared in October 2016, and launched terrorism prosecutions against the director at the beginning of the year. OMN executive, Jawar Mohammed.

‘Total immunity’

It is because he collaborates with OMN that Mr. Henok thinks he was targeted. “I am just one of the Oromo who counts,” says the academic. Most targets are Oromo activists. Jawar Mohammed was inundated with a dozen similar messages.

Reacting to the Citizen Lab report, the US Embassy in Addis Ababa, said “study the issue”.

Mr. Marczak himself received one of his malicious emails, sent from the messenger of someone with whom he corresponded, which had probably been hacked.

Citizen Lab found evidence linking spyware to a server based in Ethiopia, and showed that 43 electronic devices had been infected, including several that they attached to Eritrea, the sworn enemy of Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian government did not respond to AFP’s requests, but had in the past described the accusations of using spyware as a defamation campaign.

“Governments have carte blanche to launch cyberattacks against US citizens in their own homes, enjoying the full immunity granted by US courts,” says Nate Cardozo, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). ), a San Francisco-based digital rights group.

According to him, the offices of ESAT in Washington are also under the constant surveillance of Ethiopian agents.

The absence of legal consequences and the profusion of companies providing spyware means that Ethiopia will continue to use these tools.

“Ethiopia has been unmasked many times,” said Eva Galperin, director of cyber security at EFF. “I think the chances of them ceasing to use spyware surveillance to spy on dissidents are zero.”

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