Towards The Total Surveillance State: Ethiopia

from the they-know-everything-we-do dept

One of the most disturbing aspects of Edward Snowden’s leaks is that they reveal the total surveillance state, where the authorities monitor everything, and know everything, is no mere abstraction. Where before such a vision was the domain of tinfoil-wearing, conspiracy theorists, today it is only a couple of “hops” from reality. Given that the enabling technology is available, you might have expected there would already be a few nations that have moved close to the total surveillance state; but you might be surprised to learn that one of them is Ethiopia. A new and chilling report published recently by Human Rights Watch, entitled “They Know Everything We Do: Telecom and Internet Surveillance in Ethiopia,” explores the evidence in detail (pdf):

The Ethiopian government has maintained strict control over Internet and mobile technologies so it can monitor their use and limit the type of information that is being communicated and accessed. Unlike most other African countries, Ethiopia has a complete monopoly over its rapidly growing telecommunications sector through the state-owned operator, Ethio Telecom. This monopoly ensures that Ethiopia can effectively limit access to information and curtail freedoms of expression and association without any oversight since independent legislative or judicial mechanisms that would ensure that surveillance capabilities are not misused do not exist in Ethiopia.

Here’s what that means in practice:

Websites of opposition parties, independent media sites, blogs, and several international media outlets are routinely blocked by government censors. Radio and television stations are routinely jammed. Bloggers and Facebook users face harassment and the threat of arrest should they refuse to tone down their online writings. The message is simple: self-censor to limit criticism of the government or you will be censored and subject to arrest.

Self-censorship is a real threat in countries with widespread surveillance — even in those not as far down the path as Ethiopia. Indeed, self-censorship is probably one of the first negative consequences of any increasingly-pervasive surveillance regime.

Information gleaned from telecom and Internet sources is regularly used against Ethiopians arrested for alleged anti-government activities. During interrogations, police show suspects lists of phone calls and are questioned about the identity of callers, particularly foreign callers.

That shows concretely how “mere” metadata can be used against people, and why gathering it is so worrying. But the Ethiopian government does not limit itself to gathering information from existing sources:

Some high-profile Ethiopians in the diaspora have been targeted with highly advanced surveillance tools designed to covertly monitor online activity and steal passwords and files.

It does this thanks to technology acquired from the West — the report mentions Gamma/FinFisher and Hacking Team, both European companies. Human Rights Watch concludes its summary as follows:

Ethiopia should not only ensure that an appropriate legal framework is in place to protect and respect privacy rights entrenched in international law, but also that this legal framework is applied in practice. Companies that provide surveillance technology, software, or services should adopt policies to ensure these products are being used for legitimate law enforcement purposes and not to repress opposition parties, journalists, bloggers, and others.

Sadly, neither of those seems very likely to happen, as total surveillance continues to spread around the world, passing from a vague dystopian fear into a mundane fact of life.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Comments on “Towards The Total Surveillance State: Ethiopia”

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JoeBBB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

jimb, I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not but I’m assuming you’re not.

Whenever someone pulls out the ‘nothing to hide’ argument it instantly tells me that person doesn’t understand what privacy actually means.

Privacy does not mean that people have the right to do bad things in secret and not get caught.

Privacy is a right. It means you have the right to speak your mind without being identified. It means you are allowed to close the curtains when you’re home so no one can see inside. It’s having a door on your bathroom.

None of these things I mentioned are illegal or even borderline, and they all involve privacy.

Simply assuming privacy is equivalent to ‘I get to do bad things in private’ is a shallow viewpoint.

anon says:


Eventually this will fail, the people will realize how much they are being silenced and demand reform or start protesting in the streets, Ethiopia is probably in a position where the amount of people actually using the internet is still very low, but when the west improves access and eventually starts distributing tablets or cheap laptops to the children and poor and more than the single digit access figures they have now changed to 60% or more, then the people will demand change and be in the streets.At the moment the majority are unaware of the monitoring and how it is being used to stop freedom of speech and other activities that are human nature.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: backlash

Oh, this again:

1). They’re better armed than we are

2). Blabbing about it online means they know they need to keep an eye on you. Expect to meet some “like-minded” people who will be more than happy to assist you in your endeavors. Don’t be surprised if this ends in a decades-long stretch in the pokey.

3). Okay, suppose we have a violent upheaval and the government is overthrown. What do we replace it with? Governance is a real need in a modern society, and that requires administration. Remember what it was like when we had the shutdown? Remember how private enterprise didn’t come rushing in to meet our needs? How quickly we forget!

4). Now that you’ve realized that violence is NOT the answer, please can we discuss the possibility of a reasonable approach to the situation? People keep voting the SAME people into office because Yay!Team!!, not because the politicians they choose are actually good or likely to be good at their jobs. Address that by encouraging your friends and neighbors to vote for a party that is a) likely to get in and b) willing to perform administrative and legislative duties instead of trying to shut the whole shebang down because gubmint is eeevilll, or something.

There you go, sport.

You’re welcome.

weneedhelp (profile) says:

“Where before such a vision was the domain of tinfoil-wearing, conspiracy theorists”
Boy… the CIA has really done a great job.

So those you denounce ended up being right. You’re welcome. You’re welcome I never gave up telling PPl what would happen when Patriot act I and II were passed even though I got called a “conspiracy (insert ad-hom here)” at every turn.

You admit they were right but then still use the tinfoil jab? Willful ignorance?

EVERYTHING I said would happen has been proven true and you still try to cast doubt on those wiley “conspiracy theorists” with:
“today it is only a couple of “hops” from reality.” Anyone that spends a week here knows that we ARE there.

We are just like Ethiopia except for now, you dont get arrested for what you say… come see me in another 10 years.

Tin foil goes nicely with my eyes I am told.

Benjamin says:


One of the poorest country in the world where millions are dieng of hunger, poverty, HIV and other diseases; where medical care is lowest ; where ethnical segregation is in the highest level; where education is poorest; where unemployment is sky high; etc It is very pity and very irresponsible of those “leaders” to spend a lot of money on spying people and playing dirty games. Wake up all countries protest this evil deed.

Pragmatic says:

Re: >: Mirror, mirror

Uh, we don’t have to go far to find all that. Obama/Romneycare or not, those of us who fall between the cracks suffer ethnic segregation, HIV and other diseases, lack of medical care (because we can’t afford it but don’t qualify for Medicare/Medicaid), lack of decent education, unemployment, and prejudicial treatment for racial and/or religious reasons. Try being Hispanic in Arizona, if you don’t believe me.

The Free Market rocks, doesn’t it?

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