Even with great economic progress in recent years, the Federal Republic of Ethiopia is widely regarded as one of the poorest countries in the world. Because of its economic plight, it should come as no surprise that the possession and use of mobile devices and other forms of electronic communication are not prevalent among Ethiopia’s population. Compared with other African nations, Ethiopia has few Internet users. As of 2016, Internet penetration (i.e., the percentage of the population using the Internet) was approximately 4%, far less than that of its southern neighbor, Kenya, where Internet penetration was nearly 45%. Ethiopia also ranks behind Kenya in cell phone use. Only about 25% of Ethiopians have cell phones, compared with more than 70% of Kenyans. Still, Ethiopia’s government has employed various surveillance practices with regard to individuals’ use of electronic devices. This entry highlights Ethiopia’s privacy laws, surveillance practices, and concerns as they relate to security and human rights.

Current Privacy Laws

Ethiopia appears to be a modern democratic state. It has a constitution that clearly lays out the rights of citizens, and it holds regular and orderly elections. It also appears to have a free press and a strong judiciary. In reality, the government limits individual freedoms. The state-owned Ethio Telecom closely monitors telephone and Internet communications and limits Internet content. In recent years, the government has taken further steps to restrict what Ethiopians receive and send online.

Article 26 of the Ethiopian constitution of 1995 addresses privacy rights:

  1. Everyone has the right to privacy. This right shall include the right not to be subjected to searches of his home, person or property, or the seizure of any property under his personal possession.
  2. Everyone has the right to the inviolability of his notes and correspondence including postal letters, and communications made by means of telephone, telecommunications and electronic devices.
  3. Public officials shall respect and protect these rights. No restrictions may be placed on the enjoyment of such rights except in compelling circumstances and in accordance with specific laws whose purposes shall be the safeguarding of national security or public peace, the prevention of crimes or the protection of health, public morality or the rights and freedoms of others.

Section 1 of Article 26 explains the right to privacy in general terms. Section 2 goes into specific areas of privacy and seems broad enough to encompass the right to communicate by telephone and Internet privacy. Section 3 presents reasons why the government might find it necessary to limit these freedoms. However, it fails to adequately define what is meant by terms such as “national security,” “public peace,” and “public morality.” These remain open to government interpretation.

Status of Surveillance

Like Ethio Telecom, the Ethiopian Internet Service Provider is state run. In 2013, the Ethiopian government contracted with the Chinese firm ZTE, which was banned in the United States because it was believed to be responsible for hacking into Internet systems and stealing intellectual property. Internet Service Provider has also installed Deep Packet Inspection software, which allows the government-run Information Network Security Agency to inspect Internet traffic in Ethiopia. The government has also contracted with the spyware firm Gamma International for FinFisher, a toolkit that can monitor a computer, activate webcams, eavesdrop on Skype communication, and keep track of what the user types. FinFisher essentially turns a personal computer into a government spy device.

Key Security Concerns

The major security concern in Ethiopia appears to be political dissent, especially as manifested in the press. Ethiopia has used the Telecom Fraud Offences law to block Internet sites that engage in antigovernment rhetoric. Internet users fear that the government will begin blocking social media sites such as Facebook. The government has also shut down numerous newspapers and either imprisoned or banished journalists. Ethiopians living outside the country have found their computers hacked and their phones wiretapped. The goal seems to be to limit Ethiopians to information provided on government-run websites.

The Ethiopian government has used the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to charge journalists and bloggers with terrorism. For example, in April 2014, a group of bloggers known as the Zone 9 collective were arrested and charged with terrorism for posting stories that the government found offensive, although there was no evidence indicating that the group belonged to a terrorist organization or that it had any plans to undermine the government.

Future of Surveillance

Governmental surveillance will likely continue. The heads of various state agencies unilaterally decide who and what to surveil; the so-called independent judiciary tends to rubber stamp any requests that are presented. The Ethiopian governmental process lacks meaningful checks and balances. As of this writing, the government continues to incarcerate dissidents and journalists, and it appears to be strengthening its ties with the Chinese communist government. Great Britain and the United States, with whom Ethiopia has counterterrorism ties, continue to donate funds and have not been very outspoken regarding the human rights abuses. However, in a visit to Ethiopia in April 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concern regarding the treatment of bloggers and journalists.

James Geistman

See also Cell Phone Tracking ; Privacy, Internet ; Privacy, Right to ; Smartphones

Further Readings

Ademo, Mohammed. “Media Restrictions Tighten in Ethiopia.” Columbia Journalism Review (August 13, 2012). (Accessed December 2014).

Clayton, Mark. “With New Chinese Cyber-Tools, Ethiopia More Easily Spies on Its People.” Cyber Conflict Monitor (March 25, 2014). (Accessed September 2017).

Human Rights Watch. “World Report 2014: Ethiopia” (2014). (Accessed December 2014).

Reporters Without Borders. “Enemies of the Internet” (n.d.). (Accessed December 2014).

World Intellectual Property Organization. “Ethiopia: Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.” (Accessed December 2014).

Yilma, Kinfe Micheal and Alebachew Birhanu. “Safeguards of Right to Privacy in Ethiopia: A Critique of Laws and Practices.” Journal of Ethiopian Law, v.26/1 (2013).