March 9, 2015
Italy’s Hacking Team allegedly sold Ethiopia’s despots cyberweapons used to attack journalists
Ethopia’s despotic regime has become the world’s first “turnkey surveillance state,” thanks to technology sold to it by western companies, including, it seems, Italy’s Hacking Team, whose RCS spyware product is implicated in an attack on exiled, US-based journalists reporting on government corruption.Ethiopia’s despots cyberweapons used to attack journalists
Ethiopian Satellite Television is a consistent thorn in the ruling elite’s side. Journalists there were repeatedly targeted with what appears to be a weapon from Hacking Team. Hacking Team has never confirmed that it supplies weapons to Ethiopia, and it claims that its weapons have built-in monitoring systems to prevent abuse by its customers. Ron Deibert from the University of Toronto’s Citizenlab has sent an open letter to Hacking Team formally notifying it of the Citizenlab report on Ethiopia’s use of spyware to attack journalists.
Ethiopia ranks second in African nations for jailed journalists (Eritrea comes first).
Dissidents and others fleeing repressive regimes have long found a degree of protection by seeking refugee status in the West. Throughout the 20th century refugees from political persecution have established thriving diaspora communities where they have been able to continue their activity without fear of physical persecution. For at least as long, the security services from the countries they left have attempted to monitor and sometimes interfere with their activities.
We have documented a year-long campaign of spyware attacks against journalists at ESAT, using what appears to be Hacking Team’s RCS spyware. Many of the journalists targeted in these attacks are legally considered US persons, and located in the US.
In its customer policy, Hacking Team notes: “[I]n HT contracts, we require customers to abide by applicable law. We reserve the right in our contracts to suspend support for our software if we find terms of our contracts are violated. If we suspend support for HT technology, the product soon becomes useless.”We will refuse to provide or we will stop supporting our technologies to governments or government agencies . . . who refuse to agree to or comply with provisions in our contracts that describe intended use of HT software, or who refuse to sign contracts that include requirements that HT software be used lawfully.”57
The policy suggests that Hacking Team will cease support for its technology when a client violates terms of its contract by failing to abide by applicable law. The lawfulness of government targeting of individuals based in the US with spyware, however, is in question; for example, a lawsuit brought by a US citizen against the government of Ethiopia in February 2014 claims that such actions violated the US Wiretap Act [18 U.S. Code § 2511(1)( a )].58