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.
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