From telecommunications infrastructure to TV and radio airwaves, the Ethiopian government’s controls over communications infrastructure in the country means that even the most private and personal conversations may be exposed to unwarranted surveillance. In some cases, where communications have escaped the government’s strict monitoring system, human informers have been planted, creating an extreme sense of fear among Ethiopians. There’s an implicit understanding in the country that when discussing politics publicly, one should do so in a low voice so that only those whom they trust can hear. In Addis Ababa, the capital city, it’s not uncommon to see people glancing over their shoulders or covering their mouths when having political conversations in coffee shops or taxis. Because of this fear-provoking atmosphere, many Ethiopians stay silent as a means of protecting themselves against surveillance. A common saying in Amharic signifies the rootedness of silence as a commonly-used protection mechanism: “Blowflies won’t get into a closed mouth.”
As part of its broader control mechanism, the Ethiopian government blocks blogs and websites that are critical of the government, uses expensive surveillance software to spy on its own citizens both at home and abroad, and prosecutes bloggers for using encryption tools. Employing anonymity or using a pseudonym is the online equivalent to glancing over one's shoulder or covering one's mouth in public. There are many people who avoid liking, sharing, or commenting on political Facebook posts or tweets unless they are using an anonymous account. Their fear is justified as the government routinely arrests and charges bloggers, online journalists, and social media users for simply using the Internet to speak their mind. And unfortunately anonymity doesn’t always provide the protection that’s needed in countries like Ethiopia. For instance, recently a US-based Ethiopian LGBT rights activist’s Facebook page was taken down after Facebook received numerous reports from users. Although Facebook reinstated the page after realizing the validity of the case, the incident highlighted that using anonymous accounts and encryption tools may not be enough to shield vulnerable minority communities and dissenters from overreaching governments.
Surveillance Self-Defense in Amharic as a way out?
My decision to translate Surveillance Self-Defense (SSD) was prompted by both personal and professional factors. Firstly, I am a victim of aggressive and unlawful wiretapping. When I was in Ethiopia in 2013, the government recorded my telephone conversations and used them as evidence of a “crime” at a sham marathon trial of my Zone9 colleagues. If you just wonder why the ISP let the government wiretap my private telephone conversations, it is because Ethiopia has only one ISP and it’s government-owned. For this reason, the potential for anyone to be wiretapped at any time exists. While translating SSD into Amharic will not solve the entrenched culture of state surveillance in Ethiopia, I believe it is a first step in the fight against state intrusion of the private lives of millions. I felt responsible, having lived under a surveillance state, for making SSD available in one of Ethiopia’s languages. Hence, translating SSD into Amharic is more like an attempt to personally confront an invasive state surveillance system. I saw it as my mission to help people who are forced to live under constant gaze of the Ethiopian government.
Secondly, having spent some time in the virtual world, I feel like an “anthropologist” of the Ethiopian digital space. Ethiopia is a country where there are frequent electricity outages and yet a significant number of Ethiopians access the Internet using cyber cafes. Electricity outages can last for hours or even days and it’s rare to find users who are patient enough to wait until the electricity comes back to log off their online accounts. When I was in Addis Ababa, I remember kindly logging off from the Facebook and email accounts of users who left their accounts open during an outage. One of the reasons why this happens is because most people do not know how to change their browser’s security. Moreover, there are other widespread, poor digital behaviors carried out by even fairly tech savvy Ethiopian Internet users, such as not turning on transport layer encryption, using similar and/or weak passwords across multiple online services, clicking on links that are not secure, trusting terms and conditions of Internet companies, inadvertently giving away private information to hackers, and more. These kinds of bad habits necessitate SSD in Amharic. Moreover, since the WikiLeaks revelation that the Ethiopian government purchased expensive spying software from Hacking Team, it has become evident that SSD in Amharic is really required. By publishing SSD in Amharic, EFF’s effort to bring an Ethiopian government to justice for installing spyware on the device of an American citizen of Ethiopian descent will be even more consequential.
More on translation
Whether one follows a form-based (literal) or meaning-based translation, translating SSD’s complex ideas and practices into Amharic was best achieved by reading the guides several times and practicing the tools on various operating systems and mobile devices. An issue I encountered is that there’s a lack of standardized technology terms in Amharic. For instance, the language has no way of differentiating between encryption and cryptography. As such, I’ve added context to convey such differences in practice. When faced with ordinary technology terms such as open source, data, link, database, and domain name, I used the free Amharic ICT dictionary along with other Amharic-English dictionaries. In a bid to familiarize the usage of neutral wording for Amharic’s word “gay” I used “Haware Be’esi” from the Ge’ez-English Comparative Dictionary by Wolf Leslau as suggested by an Ethiopian blogger from the LGBT community.
Encouraging people to protect their security online is a significant part of my ongoing privacy activism. It is especially important for those living in a country like Ethiopia where the government has worked hard to convince its people that the reason they are being surveilled is for their own security. It is my hope that SSD in Amharic will show that people don’t have to relinquish their privacy in order to remain secure.