The legal appeal of a United States citizen whose communications were monitored by Ethiopian agents from afar moved forward this week, as the Kidane v. Ethiopia case was heard in a U.S. appeals court in Washington D.C.
The case centers on whether Ethiopia, as a foreign government, is accountable for illegal spying that relied on state-sponsored malware to infect the home computer of an Ethiopian American who left the country decades ago, but keeps close ties with democracy activists back home.
In 2012, the malware was embedded in an electronically delivered document, says the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit focused on defending civil liberties and digital rights. Once installed and then activated from a server in Ethiopia, the malware began to monitor Skype calls, emails, web browser search histories and the family’s general computer activity for about five months.
Attorneys for Kidane, who uses a pseudonym in order to protect his family and associates from retaliation, argued that the spying occurred in the United States – in the home of the victim – and is therefore within U.S. jurisdiction and covered under America’s Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
“Ethiopia’s lawyer argued next, taking the position that it should be able to do anything to Americans in America, even set off a car bomb, as long as Ethiopia didn’t have a human agent in the United States,” said the EFF, which has assisted in the Kidane v. Ethiopia case since 2014.
“One judge asked what would happen if Ethiopia mailed a letter bomb into the United States to assassinate an opponent, or hacked an American’s self-driving car, causing it to crash,” the EFF said. “Ethiopia didn’t hesitate: their counsel said that they could not be sued for any of those.”
The court is expected to rule on the appeal in the next few months.
The Ethiopian government has never denied that it wiretapped Kidane, but won dismissal of the initial lawsuit on the grounds that the digital attack originated in Ethiopia, the EFF said.
A 2014 Human Rights Watch report documented Ethiopia’s use of surveillance technology, which it attempts to justify as a security or anti-violence measure against its own citizens.
The complete “They Know Everything We Do” report is available at this link.