The African Union, a coalition of 55 countries established in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, has reportedly been a victim of state-sponsored espionage after an investigation from French newspaper Le Monde revealed China was using the computers in a new building’s IT division to spy on its continental neighbors.
China was able to do this because it financed and built the new building itself to act as the African Union’s new headquarters and gifted it under false pretenses of cordial partnership, Le Monde reports. The spying has reportedly been happening since 2012 when the building opened in downtown Addis Ababa. The backdoor into the African Union’s computer systems was first discovered in January 2017, when engineers in the IT division noticed an unusual spike of activity late into the evening when the building was no longer staffed.
“[The building] has been fully equipped by the Chinese. The computer systems were delivered turnkey. And Chinese engineers have deliberately left two flaws: backdoors, which give discrete access to all internal exchanges and productions of the organization,” writes Le Monde. “According to several sources within the institution, all sensitive content could be spied on by China. A spectacular leak of data, which would have spread from January 2012 to January 2017. Contacted, the Chinese mission to the AU did not follow our requests.”
China’s ambassador to the AU, Kuang Weilin, called the claims “absurd” in response, and denied China used the infrastructure for spying. “I really question its [the report’s] intention,” Weilin told a group reporters on Monday, as reported by the BBC. “I think it will undermine and send a very negative message to people. I think it is not good for the image of the newspaper itself. Certainly, it will create problems for China-Africa relations.”
The AU moved quickly to remedy the situation by purchasing its own computer servers and encrypting its data and communications. Without official confirmation from the Chinese government, it’s unclear what the purpose of a cyber-espionage operation was beyond an apparent desire to keep an eye on the Pan-African region and monitor its governmental policymaking.
Regardless, without more information, the news is sure to further complicate the relationship between Chinese companies, which are intertwined with the country’s government, and the rest of the world, specifically the United States in which some Chinese companies perform a majority of overseas business. Chinese phone maker Huawei lost a deal with AT&T earlier this month to sell its new smartphone, the Mate 10, in the US over concerns of government spying. Huawei CEO Richard Yu addressed the situation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on January 9th, going off-script to say, “We are serving over 70 million people worldwide. We’ve proven our quality, we’ve proven our privacy and security protection.”