Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused Italian technology company Hacking Team of violations of human rights in Ethiopia. HRW is a nongovernmental advocacy group that seeks to expose offenders of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was (UNDR) adopted by the UN. Hacking Team offers remote surveillance services to large entities such as governments and corporations.
This is not the first time that Hacking Team has been implicated by HRW. In February 2014, Human Right Watch’s senior internet researcher sent notice to the company outlining concerns about the use of Hacking Team’s tools by the government of Ethiopia against the citizens of the country. Hacking Team responded, explaining that the company’s own customer service agreement stipulates that such actions are not condoned by the tech company, and should such violations be found, support to the offender could be suspended. Research performed by Citizen Lab discovered that despite findings of wrongdoing of Ethiopian government officials, officials continued to target employees of Ethiopian Satellite Television Service (ESAT), resulting in the suppression of flow of information to the Ethiopian people.
In a delicious twist of irony, Hacking Team suffered a security breach resulting in a leak of materials. Upon review of these materials, Cynthia Wong, senior internet researcher at HRW, posted a new letter to Hacking Team concerning the same issue. Wong posted the letter to the Human Right Watch’s website on August 13, 2015.
“We have reviewed the Hacking Team data that has been released online. The leaked materials provide no indication that Hacking Team took any meaningful steps to investigate abuse by your client, the Ethiopian Information Network Security Agency (INSA). The materials also do not show that the firm took any meaningful steps to stop any of the agency’s abuses that were committed with the technology and training Hacking Team provided. Instead, emails show that the firm was actively pursuing new contracts with INSA at the time of the breach.”
Wong’s letter clearly accuses Hacking Team of blatantly violating their own customer policy, a discretion that led to violations by the UNDR.
On August 14, 2015, Hacking Team CEO David Vincenzetti responded to HRW, explaining that Hacking Team broke ties with the client in question despite pointing out that Citizen Lab’s research findings were “somewhat inconclusive.” Vincenzetti took the opportunity to accuse Human Rights Watch of failing to find any of the positive work accomplished by the tech company’s tools in the leaked materials. He also pointed out that HRW was using stolen documents to come to this conclusion.
“Privacy is certainly a value for all of us but so is the right of us all to be protected from crime,” wrote the CEO.
The Hill reports that Hacking Team’s reach is complex and intricate and that the leaked materials from the company’s security breach revealed relationships with the FBI and the DEA.
Whether Hacking Team is ultimately found in the right or in violation, Human Rights Watch has its work cut out for itself. Growing stealth surveillance technology puts human rights up for grabs with the click of a button.