Ethiopian journalists in the US were targeted by malware sold exclusively to governments by the Hacking Team company, according to security researchers.
Staffers at Ethiopian Satellite Television Service (ESAT), an independent TV, radio, and online news outlet run by Ethiopian ex-pats, was targeted repeatedly by spyware in late December. The spyware was designed to steal files and passwords, and intercept Skype calls and instant messages.
In each case, the spyware appeared to be Remote Control System (RCS), sold exclusively to governments by Milan-based Hacking Team, according to a subsequent analysis of the malware by independent researchers working for Citizen Lab*.
Hacking Team states that they do not sell RCS to “repressive regimes” and that RCS is not sold through “independent agents”. However, Ethiopia has a poor record for upholding human rights and local journalists are frequently targeted for arrest and subsequent beatings or other forms of abuse, according to Human Rights Watch.
ESAT broadcasts are frequently critical of the Ethiopian government and the station has been subjected to jamming from within Ethiopia several times in the past few years.
Hacking Team sells “offensive technology” to governments around the world. The company makes it clear that its law enforcement trojans are sold only to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Citizen Lab-affiliated infosec researchers have put together a compressive analysis of how Hacking Team spyware was used on three occasions against ESAT on 20 December.
We identified three instances where Ethiopian journalist group ESAT was targeted with spyware in the space of two hours by a single attacker. In each case the spyware appeared to be RCS (Remote Control System), programmed and sold exclusively to governments by Milan-based Hacking Team.
While Hacking Team and other “lawful intercept” spyware vendors purport to practice effective self-regulation, this case seems to be part of a broader pattern of government abuse of such spyware. “Lawful intercept” spyware has also apparently been abused to target Bahraini activists, Moroccan journalists, critics of the Turkish Government, and Emirati human rights activists.
The attack against ESAT raises wider questions about the trade in so-called “lawful intercept” spyware. Hacking Team is not alone in operating in this marketplace, with other suppliers including French spyware firm Amesys, which is claimed to have sold products to Libya under the Gaddafi regime; and UK/German spyware maker Gamma International, according to reports from press freedom group Reporters Without Borders last year.
We asked Hacking Team if it wanted to comment on the Citizen Lab report and will update this story as and when we hear anything back.
*Citizen Lab is an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, Canada that focuses on researching the relationship between technology, human rights, and global security.