by Tadesse Yimer
- Ethiopian Satellite Television Service1 (ESAT) is an independent satellite television, radio, and online news media outlet run by members of the Ethiopian diaspora. The service has operations in Alexandria, Virginia, as well as several other countries.2 ESAT’s broadcasts are frequently critical of the Ethiopian Government. Available in Ethiopia and around the world, ESAT has been subjected to jamming from within Ethiopia several times in the past few years.3 A recent documentary shown on Ethiopian state media warned opposition parties against participating in ESAT programming.
- In the space of two hours on 20 December 2013, an attacker made three separate attempts to target two ESAT employees with sophisticated computer spyware, designed to steal files and passwords, and intercept Skype calls and instant messages. The spyware communicated with an IP address belonging to Ariave Satcom, a satellite provider that services Africa, Europe, and Asia.5 In each case, the spyware appeared to be Remote Control System (RCS), sold exclusively to governments by Milan-based Hacking Team.6
- Hacking Team states that they do not sell RCS to “repressive regimes”,7 and that RCS is not sold through “independent agents”.8 Hacking Team also says that all sales are reviewed by a board that includes outside engineers and lawyers. The board has veto power over any sale.9 Before authorizing a sale, the company states that it considers “credible government or non-government reports reflecting that a potential customer could use surveillance technologies to facilitate human rights abuses,” as well as “due process requirements” for surveillance.10
- The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that Ethiopia jails more journalists than any other African country besides Eritrea, and says that the Ethiopian government has shut down more than seventy-five media outlets since 1993.11 CPJ statistics also show that seventy-nine journalists have been forced to flee Ethiopia due to threats and intimidation over the past decade, more than any other country in the world.12 A 2013 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report detailed ongoing torture at Ethiopia’s Maekelawi detention center, the first stop for arrested journalists and protests organizers. Former detainees described how they were “repeatedly slapped, kicked, punched, and beaten,” and hung from the ceiling by their wrists. Information extracted in confession has been used to obtain conviction at trial, and to compel former detainees to work with the government.13 HRW also indicated abuses committed by the army, including the use of torture and rape to compel information from villagers near the site of an attack on a farm.14 HRW noted “insufficient respect for … due process” in Ethiopia.15
Hacking Team and Remote Control System (RCS)
Hacking Team, also known as HT S.r.l., is a Milan-based purveyor of “offensive technology” to governments around the world. One of their products, known as Remote Control System (RCS), is a trojan that is sold exclusively to intelligence and law enforcement agencies worldwide. Hacking Team’s website describes the product as “the solution” to monitor targets that are increasingly using encryption, or those located outside the borders of the government that wants to monitor them.16
Description of RCS in a 2011 official brochure.17
RCS infects a target’s computer or mobile phone to intercept data before it is encrypted for transmission, and can also intercept data that is never transmitted. For example, it can copy files from a computer’s hard disk, and can also record Skype calls, e-mails, instant messages, and passwords typed into a Web browser.18 Furthermore, RCS can turn on a device’s webcam and microphone to spy on the user.19
While Hacking Team claims to potential clients that RCS can be used for mass surveillance of “hundreds of thousands of targets,”20 public statements by Hacking Team emphasize RCS’s potential use as a targeted tool for fighting crime and terrorism.21
Hacking Team was first thrust into the public spotlight in 2012 when RCS was used against award-winning Moroccan media outlet Mamfakinch,22 and United Arab Emirates (UAE) human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, who was pardoned23 after serving seven months in prison for signing an online pro-democracy petition.24 Mansoor was infected, his Gmail password was stolen, and his e-mails were downloaded.25 At the same time, RCS is apparently being used by foreign governments to target individuals on US soil.26,27
Evidence of the use of RCS against journalists and activists led Reporters Without Borders to name Hacking Team as one of the five “Corporate Enemies of the Internet.”28 Hacking Team Senior Counsel Eric Rabe responded with a defense of his company’s sales practices, in which he stated that Hacking Team does not provide its products to “repressive” regimes.29
On the issue of repressive regimes, Hacking Team goes to great lengths to assure that their software is not sold to governments that are blacklisted by the EU, US, NATO, and similar international organizations, or to any “repressive” regime.
“Repressive” is a subjective term that may be difficult to define. We instead look to a selection of publications that rank countries based on freedom and democracy using a methodology. For example, The Economist publishes a Democracy Index,30 which rates governments around the world on a spectrum from “full democracies” to “authoritarian regimes.” Reporters Without Borders also publishes a yearly Press Freedom Index, which ranks countries’ press freedom situations from “good” to “very serious.”31
Ethiopia and Ethiopian Satellite Television Service (ESAT)
The Economist ranks Ethiopia as an “authoritarian regime,” and Reporters Without Borders classifies it as a country that presents a “difficult situation” for journalists. Human Rights Watch calls Ethiopia’s press law “deeply flawed,” and notes that several award-winning journalists have been convicted under the law for exercising their right to freedom of expression, as part of a government crackdown on independent media.32
Journalists jailed under the press law includes Eskinder Nega, who was convicted of terrorism in 2012 in a case following the publication of his column that criticized the government’s detention of journalists.33 Nega won the 2012 PEN America Freedom to Write Award, and was hailed by the group as of the “bravest and most admirable of writers, one who picked up his pen to write things that he knew would surely put him at grave risk.”34 Nega is currently serving an eighteen year sentence in prison, having “[fallen] victim to exactly the measures he was highlighting.”35 In a May 2013 letter from prison, he wrote, “I will live to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It may or may not be a long wait. Whichever way events may go, I shall persevere!”36
ESAT describes itself as “powered by broad-based collective of exiled journalists, human rights advocates, civic society leaders and members in the Diaspora.” Available in Ethiopia and around the world, ESAT’s television and radio signals have been subjected to jamming from within Ethiopia several times in the past few years.37
Previous research by the Citizen Lab found a version of the FinFisher government spyware that used a picture of members of Ethiopian opposition group Ginbot 7 as bait, indicating politically-motivated targeting. That spyware communicated with a command-and-control server in Ethiopia.38
First Targeting Attempt
First, the ESATSTUDIO Skype account was targeted with spyware. This account is used by ESAT for on-air interviews. The individual operating the ESATSTUDIO account at the time was an ESAT employee in Belgium, responsible for managing ESAT’s satellite broadcasts. An individual identified as “Yalfalkenu Meches” (Skype: yalfalkenu1) sent a file to ESATSTUDIO entitled “An Article for ESAT.rar.” We use Skype logs provided by the targets to illustrate the attacks.
This .rar file contained an .exe file disguised as a .pdf. The file used the Adobe PDF icon, and contained a large number of spaces between the name and extension, to prevent Windows from displaying the extension. Left: How the file was rendered in Windows; Right: Windows file properties dialog
Despite the file’s name, “An Article for ESAT,” the file did not display any such article, or any other content, when opened.
Analysis and Link to Hacking Team RCS
The file sent to ESAT appeared to be Hacking Team’s RCS spyware for the following two reasons:
- The file communicated with a server that returned two SSL certificates. The second certificate was issued by “RCS Certification Authority” / “HT srl”, and was similar to SSL certificates returned by two other servers apparently owned by Hacking Team. The first certificate was similar to certificates returned by two other servers that appeared to be demonstration servers for Hacking Team’s RCS spyware.
- The file matched a signature that we had previously developed for RCS spyware.
As in the previous two files, the file communicated with 126.96.36.199. This file also matched our signature for RCS spyware. For the same reasons as the first two files, this file appears to be Hacking Team RCS spyware.
After the first two targeting attempts, we alerted ESAT that Yalfalkenu Meches was trying to target them with spyware. On the third attempt,the targeted user confronted Yalfalkenu, who again professed that he had received the file from a friend.
Yalfalkenu also expressed puzzlement about how opening a Word document could infect a computer, and said that he was a victim.
We talked to employees of ESAT, who said that Yalfalkenu used to collaborate with them, but then he “disappeared for a while.” It is possible that someone else is now using Yalfalkenu’s account.
Links to Other Spyware
Our scans indicated that the following other servers were likely being run by the same attacker that targeted ESAT, and were also likely Hacking Team RCS servers:
the note that the “RCS Certification Authority” / “HT srl” SSL certificates returned by these servers were issued on 5/8/2012. Based on this date, we estimate that the attacker who targeted ESAT has been using Hacking Team’s RCS spyware since May 2012, or earlier.
We found the following sample in VirusTotal that matched our signature for Hacking Team RCS spyware. The sample used 188.8.131.52 as a command-and-control server. Thus, we believe the attackers were the same, though we have no indication as to who they may have targeted:
In this report, 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.
Thanks to Eva Galperin, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and ESAT.