WASHINGTON — Ethiopia appears to again be using Internet spying tools in attempts to eavesdrop on journalists based in suburban Washington, said security researchers who call such intrusions a serious threat to human rights and press freedoms worldwide.
The journalists, who work for Ethiopian Satellite Television in Alexandria, Va., provide one of the few independent news sources to their homeland through regular television and radio feeds.
The Ethiopian government has accused journalists of “terrorism” and has repeatedly jammed the signals of foreign broadcasters.
The struggle increasingly has stretched into cyberspace, where malicious software sold to governments for law enforcement purposes has been observed targeting the journalists, researchers said.
The most recent documented case, in December, came several months after the Washington Post first detailed the government’s apparent de-ployment of the Internet spying tools, which, though far cruder, offer some of the same tools used by the National Security Agency and the intelligence services of other advanced nations.
“This is the second round of coordinated attempts at installing spyware so they can monitor our systems and uncover who our sources are inside of Ethiopia,” said Neamin Zeleke, managing director of Ethiopian Satellite Television, which is commonly known as ESAT. “This is a really tenacious attempt to crack down on freedom of expression.”
Zeleke became suspicious when a message from an unknown sender arrived in December with an attachment claiming to have information about upcoming elections.
In 2013, the computer of one of Zeleke’s colleagues was infected with malware after the person opened what appeared to be a Microsoft Word file. They later learned that it was probably a spying tool sold to governments around the world by the Italy-based vendor Hacking Team, according to researchers at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.