Ethiopia’s hacking revelations

Ethiopia PM

Ethiopia PM

Fikrejesus Amahazion

Last week, a large trove of emails was released showing how the Italian surveillance firm Hacking Team sold surveillance technology to governments around the world. The technology allows governments to infect smartphones and computers with malware to covertly record conversations and steal data. Amongst the numerous governments implicated was Ethiopia, with the leaked information showing that the government targeted Ethiopian journalists based in the United States. The Ethiopian regime possesses a deplorable record on freedom of the press, and the Ethiopian diaspora is vital in presenting coverage of the country’s domestic situation.

Notably, the leaked documents reveal how Hacking Team charged the Ethiopian regime $1 million in 2012 for services, while in recent years the regime has been one of the firm’s top clients (by total sales revenue). Somewhat amusingly, the emails also reveal that Hacking Team considered the Ethiopian government too “reckless and clumsy” in its use of the surveillance tools and thus representing a threat to expose the firm and its activities.

With little question, the leaked documents underscore the Ethiopian government’s status as a repressive regime with amongst the world’s worst records on human rights and free speech.

However, serious questions arise when the leaked documents are considered alongside the fact that Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest recipients of foreign economic assistance. For decades, various despotic Ethiopian regimes have been highly dependent on foreign aid. In 2012, it was the world’s seventh largest recipient of official humanitarian aid and received $3.2 billion in total assistance, the latter figure representing between 50-60 percent of its total budget. Moreover, Ethiopia’s 2011 share of total official development assistance – approximately 4 percent – placed it behind only Afghanistan, while over the years, the country has received tens of millions of dollars in western (especially US) military assistance. Ironically, just last week, the annual Global Humanitarian Assistance Report was published, revealing that across 2004-2013, Ethiopia was the world’s fourth largest recipient of foreign assistance, collecting US$5.9 billion.

Thus, donors must ask why exactly is one of the world’s poorest countries, with a host of socio-economic and development challenges, spending large sums of money to illegally monitor journalists, rather than feed or clothe its people? While the international community has a moral imperative to assist governments and people around the world who are in need of help, it must also commit to ensuring that assistance is utilized appropriately. Otherwise, the international community becomes complicit in the oppression of the people it allegedly claims to want to help.


Ethiopia’s $1 million bill from Hacking Team.


A leaked email reveals that Hacking Team considers the Ethiopian government “reckless and clumsy” and thus a threat to expose the firm and its activities.


Hacking Team’s Total Revenues per Country; Ethiopia is one of the firm’s top clients.

* Fikrejesus Amahazion is a PhD candidate focusing on Political Economy, Development and Human Rights.