For a period of 5 years, China continued to spy on all electronic communications at the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Chinese spy operation continued throughout this period without being detected until some network administrators at the AU’s headquarters discovered it in January 2017.
This is according to an investigation conducted by Le Monde which has gone on to reveal how the Chinese, who donated and built the new AU headquarters in Adis Ababa, fitted the building with hidden microphones and transferred data every night from the AU’s data center to their servers in Shanghai.
In January 2012, the new AU headquarters in Addis Ababa built and equipped by the Chinese government were opened. The $200 million 20-story tower along with other buildings in the complex was called “China’s gift to Africa” by the Chinese government, yet, it would later be revealed that it was a gift that would keep on giving.
Almost exactly five years later after the new headquarters were opened, in January 2017, it has been revealed that the IT team at the AU headquarters discovered that their network was transmitting unusually large amounts of traffic after midnight, daily. This is at a time, as Le Monder reports, when the AU headquarters is empty and there isn’t supposed to be much activity, if any, on their network. After a network administrator investigated further, it became apparent that large amounts of data from servers in the AU data center were being sent, every night, to unknown servers in Shanghai. This apparently also included voice data that was being recorded from hidden microphones in the building which was fully fitted by the Chinese.
According to the AU, since the discovery was made in January 2017, they have replaced all Chinese donated servers and ICT equipment at the AU headquarters and acquired its own servers. What is more surprising and based on the AU’s response to Le Monde, is that it seems that the Chinese offered to configure the equipment, a request which the AU declined.
The AU also say they have taken more steps towards securing their communications including encryption of communications as well as ensuring that all AU officials have telephone lines that don’t go through Ethiopia’s Ethio Telecom, which is known for surveillance and co-operating when authorities need to shut down the Internet in the country.
The Chinese on the other hand, have gone on to deny any spying allegations . Kuang Weilin, China’s ambassador to the AU, has called the “allegations” as “absurd”.
The revelation raises several questions, one of which is important and directed at the AU: How is it possible that your entire IT team only discovered such a large transfer of data every night ONLY after 5 years?
More concerning is how a building that occasionally houses Afrika’s leaders apparently had no or very little security checks done to ensure communications were safe an/or there were no hidden recording devices in it. Perhaps, finally, Afrika will “despise the free lunch.”