Ethiopia spying case casts spotlight on cyber surveillance in US

A first-of-its kind lawsuit that resumes in a U.S. District Court on Tuesday has drawn attention to the private surveillance-technology industry as a potential enabler of spying on Americans. The case involves a U.S. citizen who alleges that “clandestine computer programs” assumed “what amounts to complete control” over his personal computer and relayed copies of his electronic activity — including Skype calls, Internet searches and emails — to the Ethiopian government.

Kidane — the pseudonym under which the complainant is known in the case to protect his family from retribution — says his computer was monitored by spyware placed on his computer while he was living in the United States. He is an Ethiopian-born naturalized U.S. citizen who sought asylum in the U.S., where he has lived for more than two decades. His case is being closely watched by activists and civil liberties campaigners because of its potential implications for domestic cybersurveillance by security agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA).

A victory for Kidane “would be a clear statement from a U.S court to say that wiretapping without court authorization is illegal, no matter who does it. And yes, absolutely that would have implications for the NSA,” said his legal counsel, Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“We know that the NSA engages in full content wiretapping … without a court order authorizing it,” he added. “That conduct is simply illegal, and I think a U.S. court order holding Ethiopia responsible for doing the same thing but on a much smaller scale here hopefully would at least raise some eyebrows at the NSA.”

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