10 Things to Know About Ethiopia Latest Surveillance on Dissidents

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  1. THROUGHOUT 2016 AND 2017, individuals in Canada, United States, Germany, Norway, United Kingdom, and numerous other countries began to receive suspicious emails. It wasn’t just common spam. These people were chosen.
  2. Behind this sophisticated international spying operation was one of the poorest countries in the world; a country where less than 5 percent of the population has access to the internet; a country run by an autocratic government routinely flagged for human rights abuses and corruption. Behind this operation was… Ethiopia.
  3. Strong circumstantial evidence points to one or more government agencies in Ethiopia as the responsible party. The Citizen Lab team were also able to identify the IP addresses of those who were targeted and successfully infected: a group that includes journalists, a lawyer, activists, and academics.
  4. Many of the countries in which the targets live—the United States, Canada, and Germany, among others—have strict wiretapping laws that make it illegal to eavesdrop without a warrant. It seems individuals in Ethiopia broke those laws.
  5. Citizen lab team reverse-engineered the malware used in this instance, and over time this allowed the team to positively identify the company whose spyware was being employed by Ethiopia: Cyberbit Solutions, a subsidiary of the Israel-based homeland security company Elbit Systems.
  6. Cyberbit is the fourth company identified, alongside Hacking Team, Finfisher, and NSO Group, whose products and services have been abused by autocratic regimes to target dissidents, journalists, and others. Along with NSO Group, it’s the second Israel-based company whose technology has been used in this way.
  7. “ The company declined to confirm or deny that the government of Ethiopia is a client, but did note that “Cyberbit Solutions can confirm that any transaction made by it was approved by the competent authorities.”
  8. Governments like Ethiopia no longer depend on their own in-country advanced computer science, engineering, and mathematical capacity in order to build a globe-spanning cyber espionage operation. They can simply buy it off the shelf from a company like Cyberbit. Thanks to companies like these, an autocrat whose country has poor national infrastructure but whose regime has billions of dollars can order up their own NSA.
  9. The second-largest concentration of successful infections of this Ethiopian operation is located in Canada. Among the targets whose identities we were able to verify and name in the report, what unites them all is their peaceful political opposition to the Ethiopian government. Except one. Astoundingly, Citizen Lab researcher Bill Marczak, who led our technical investigation, was himself targeted at one point by the espionage operators.
  10. “It is troubling if Israeli authorities allowed the sale of Cyberbit’s spyware to Ethiopian security agencies, given their established record of using malware to violate rights,” Wong said. “Spyware should be kept far from known human rights abusers.”

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