How China spied on the African Union’s computers

China built and paid for the African Union’s computer network  but inserted a backdoor allowing it access to the continental organisation’s confidential information

In January 2017, the information technology unit at the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa noticed something strange, according to a stunning investigation in French newspaper Le Monde.

Every night, between midnight and 2am, there was a strange peak in data usage – even though the building was almost entirely empty. Upon further investigation, the technicians noticed something even stranger. That data – which included confidential information – was being sent to servers based in Shanghai.

The African Union’s shiny new headquarters was built and paid for by the Chinese government, as a gift to its “African friends”. But when the building was officially opened in 2012, China left a backdoor into the African Union’s computer network, allowing it to access the institution’s secrets at will.

“According to several sources within the institution, all sensitive content could be spied on by China,” wrote Le Monde. “It’s a spectacular leak of data, spread from January 2012 to January 2017.”

The Chinese mission to the AU did not respond to Le Monde’s request for comment.

Once the problem was discovered, African Union officials acted quickly to fix it. The organisation acquired its own servers, and began encrypting its communications. In July 2017, a team of experts from Algeria – a country with a notoriously efficient intelligence community – along with cybersecurity experts from Ethiopia combed the building from top to bottom, looking for hidden microphones and other potential weaknesses.

China would not be the first supposedly friendly superpower to spy on the African Union. A separate investigation in December 2016, conducted by Le Monde and The Intercept, revealed that African Union officials were targeted for surveillance by British intelligence.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison, The Continent
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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