U.S. citizen sues Ethiopia for allegedly using computer spyware against him

The case is the latest sign that the government of Ethi­o­pia, an American ally with a history of repressing political opponents, journalists and human rights activists, has used sophisticated Internet technology to monitor its perceived enemies, even when they are in other countries.

“The Ethio­pian government appears to be doing everything it can to spy on members of the diaspora, especially those in contact with opposition groups,” said Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group based in San Francisco that prepared the suit.Ethio­pian officials did not respond immediately to requests for comment Tuesday morning. Last week, for a separate story about the government’s alleged use of spyware against Ethio­pian journalists working in the United States, a government official said, “The Ethiopian government did not use and has no reason at all to use any spyware.”

Tuesday’s suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, takes the unusual step of not naming the plaintiff, who alleges in an affidavit that revealing his identity would endanger him, his children and members of his family still in Ethi­o­pia.

The man first came to the United States 22 years ago, won political asylum and now is a U.S. citizen living in Silver Spring, Md. He provides “technical and administrative support” to an Ethio­pian opposition group, Ginbot 7, but is not a formal member of that group, the affidavit says. The suit uses a pseudonym, Kidane, which is a common name in Ethi­o­pia. A judge must permit the use of a pseudonym in the suit.

“I would be extremely hesitant to continue to seek legal redress in this case should I be denied this request to proceed pseudonymously, as I fear the litigation would put my life and the lives of my family at substantial risk,” Kidane wrote in the affidavit.

Computer researchers tracking the spread of spyware have named Ethi­o­pia among a list of dozens of countries that use such products. They typically can read e-mails, snatch documents and contact lists, record video chats, and remotely activate cameras and microphones, making a computer capable of spying on targets in their homes or work places. The market for spyware operates with few international restrictions, though using it can violate a range of laws.

Hidden files discovered by forensics experts show the hacking of Kidane’s computer began in October 2012, when he downloaded what appeared to be a Microsoft Word file attached to an e-mail, the suit alleges. The document, in Ethiopia’s Amharic language, contained a desperate plea from another Ethio­pian expatriate requesting Kidane’s help in protecting a relative in danger. It also contained FinSpy, which gradually took hold of Kidane’s computer.

More than four months later, in March 2013, an independent research group published areport detailing evidence that Ethi­o­pia was using FinSpy, produced by Gamma Group, a spyware maker based in Britain and Germany. That report, by Citizen Lab at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, singled out a server based at Ethiopia’s state-owned telecommunications company as controlling the spyware.

Five days after that report was issued — prompting widespread news coverage — the server in Ethi­o­pia went offline and the hackers who had taken control of Kidane’s computer attempted to remove all traces of FinSpy from his machine, the lawsuit alleges.

But the attempted removal was incomplete, leaving behind the hidden files that forensics researchers for the Electronic Frontier Foundation eventually found.

Gamma Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment filed through its Web site, which describes the company as an “international manufacturer of surveillance & monitoring systems with technical and sales offices in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.”

The lawsuit, prepared in conjunction with private firm Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi, seeks a court declaration that the Ethio­pian government was behind the hacking of Kidane’s computer, as well as attorney’s fees and $10,000 in damages, the maximum allowed under the U.S. Wiretap Act.

Privacy International, an advocacy group based in Britain, filed a criminal complaint there Monday urging investigation of the alleged use of FinSpy against an Ethio­pian political refu­gee based in the United Kingdom. Last week, Citizen Lab issued a report detailing evidence that the Ethio­pian government had used a different brand of spyware, produced by an Italian company called Hacking Team, against journalists working for Ethio­pian Satellite Television, a news service with offices in the Washington area.

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Posted by on February 18, 2014. Filed under NEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to U.S. citizen sues Ethiopia for allegedly using computer spyware against him

  1. sherif,

    February 18, 2014 at 7:24 PM

    The joke of 22nd century ,,,,