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Do Foreign Governments Have a Right To Spy On American Citizens Inside Their Homes? One Country Believes So

Just when you think that the surveillance news can't get any more bizarre, along comes this item. The Electronic Frontier foundation (EFF) will argue in a Federal court today at 2:00 pm for an American seeking to to proceed with a lawsuit against the Ethiopian government. Lawyers in the United States representing the Ethiopian government want the case dismissed and claim:

"... that foreign governments have a right wiretap Americans inside their own homes without court oversight, a right that not even the U.S. government claims for itself."

The plaintiff, an American, uses the pseudonym "Mr. Kidane" to protect his family both in the United States and in Ethiopia. Mr. Kidane wants to sue the Ethiopian government in a United States court for:

"... infecting his computer with secret spyware, wiretapping his private calls, and monitoring his family’s every use of the computer for weeks... EFF Staff Attorney Nate Cardozo will argue Tuesday that Ethiopia must answer in court for the illegal spying on Mr. Kidane. The case is also supported by the law firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi, LLP."

According to the EFF press release, the spyware allegedly found on Mr. Kidane’s computer was identified as:

"... part of a systemic campaign by the Ethiopian government to spy on perceived political opponents. The malware in this case was a program called FinSpy, surveillance software marketed exclusively to governments by the Gamma Group of Companies. Just recently, leaked documents have shown that a competing spyware company called Hacking Team has also provided covert surveillance software to Ethiopia..."

The New York Times reported in August 2012 that FinSpy was:

"... one of the more elusive spyware tools sold in the growing market of off-the-shelf computer surveillance technologies that give governments a sophisticated plug-in monitoring operation. Research now links it to servers in more than a dozen countries, including Turkmenistan, Brunei and Bahrain, although no government acknowledges using the software for surveillance purposes."

In 2012, experts estimated the size of the spy-software market at $5 billion. I believe consumers can safely assume that the spyware market is far larger today. Founded during the 1990s, the Gamma Group sells turnkey surveillance software globally to governments. "Turnkey" means completed, finished software that is ready to operate. You might say it's plug-and-play.

The Washington Post reported in February 2014 that Mr. Kidane:

"... came to the United States 22 years ago, won political asylum and now is a U.S. citizen living in Silver Spring, Md. He provides “technical and administrative support” to an Ethio­pian opposition group, Ginbot 7, but is not a formal member of that group..."

The lawsuit highlights the risks when consumers use the Internet. What are your opinions of this lawsuit?


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Joe Moore

I don't believe that foreign governments have the right to spy on US citizens in their homes.
However, it's hard to argue against that position if you believe in the rule of law between nations, the right of nations to self defense, and the claim of the US government of the right to spy on foreign citizens in THEIR homes for the purpose of self defense.



Can you cite a specific law that prohibits foreign governments from spying on U.S. citizens in the USA?

And yes, you are correct. U.S. government agencies (e.g., NSA, CIA) believe they have the right to spy on citizens in other countries. They have even spied on our allies. Remember this from 2013:

Embassy Espionage: The NSA's Secret Spy Hub in Berlin

Given this, one might expect other countries to claim the same rights. I like the work that the EFF does. I feel confident it took this lawsuit because it felt that it had a legal basis to make a good argument. I have not read the complaint, yet.


Joe Moore

I think the laws that prevent U.S. residents from spying on each other have exceptions for law enforcement but not for foreign governments. That might be enough for the suit to succeed. But, I'm not a lawyer and have no idea what the rules are for suing foreign governments.

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