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Ethiopia: the first "off-the-shelf" surveillance state


"They Know Everything We Do", a new, exhaustive report from Human Rights Watch, details the way the young state of modern Ethiopia has become a kind of pilot program for the abuse of "off-the-shelf" surveillance, availing itself of commercial products from the US, the UK, France, Italy and China in order to establish an abusive surveillance regime that violates human rights and suppresses legitimate political opposition under the guise of a anti-terrorism law that's so broadly interpreted as to be meaningless.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is representing a victim of Ethiopian state surveillance: Mr. Kidane had his computer hacked by Ethiopian spies while he was in the USA, and they planted spyware that gave them access to his Skype and Google traffic.

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American citizen and EFF sue Ethiopian government for installing British spyware on laptop

A US citizen had government-grade spyware placed on his laptop by the Ethiopian government, who proceeded to monitor his Skype calls, instant messages, and his whole family's Internet use. Finspy, the software the Ethiopian regime used was provided by Gamma Group, a British company that makes and sells spyware exclusively to governments. They attacked the US citizen's computer while he was in the USA.

The victim of the attack -- who is being called "Mr. Kidane" in order to protect his family in Ethiopia -- is suing the Ethiopian government in a US court, and is represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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Amazing images of salt harvest in Ethiopia

National Geographic calls Ethiopia's Danakil Depression "the cruelest place on Earth." It's a desert wasteland, where temperatures can push past 120 F, where ancient and current lava flows impede movement, and where water is so scarce that that people build rock domes over the top of volcanic vents to trap and condense steam.

It's also a place where Ethiopian men and boys regularly travel in order to cut slabs of salt off of the surface of the Earth and haul them back to civilization. Salt flats like this occur when entire bodies of water totally evaporate. In the Danakil Depression, you'll also find salt towers and other formations caused by evaporation off of volcanic geysers and hot springs.

The photo above was taken by Reuters photographer Siegfried Modola, who traveled with a group of salt miners into the desert and then followed their haul all the way back to the marketplace. You can see his full slideshow of images online. I chose this one because it gives you a view of the salt as it's found on the ground, and the neat, rectangular blocks the merchants cut it into for shipping.

The spot is a favorite of photographers. I'd also recommend checking out the photos and story put together by Christina Feldt, who posted about the Danakil salt flats earlier this year.

Illiterate kids given sealed boxes with tablets figure out how to use, master, and hack them

Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child presentation at the MIT Tech Review EmTech conference recounted an inspiring experiment in which illiterate Ethiopian village-kids were given solar-charging laptops in sealed boxes, and quickly taught themselves how to operate, then master, then hack, these devices, acquiring basic literacy and technological literacy at the same time.

MIT Technology Review's David Talbot reports in a piece reprinted on Mashable.com:

The experiment is being done in two isolated rural villages with about 20 first-grade-aged children each, about 50 miles from Addis Ababa. One village is called Wonchi, on the rim of a volcanic crater at 11,000 feet; the other is called Wolonchete, in the Rift Valley. Children there had never previously seen printed materials, road signs, or even packaging that had words on them, Negroponte said.

Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. “I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”

Elaborating later on Negroponte’s hacking comment, Ed McNierney, OLPC’s chief technology officer, said that the kids had gotten around OLPC’s effort to freeze desktop settings. “The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids’ tablet looked different. We had installed software to prevent them from doing that,” McNierney said. “And the fact they worked around it was clearly the kind of creativity, the kind of inquiry, the kind of discovery that we think is essential to learning.”

“If they can learn to read, then they can read to learn.”

In an interview after his talk, Negroponte said that while the early results are promising, reaching conclusions about whether children could learn to read this way would require more time. “If it gets funded, it would need to continue for another a year and a half to two years to come to a conclusion that the scientific community would accept,” Negroponte said. “We’d have to start with a new village and make a clean start.”

Given Tablets But No Teachers, Ethiopian Kids Teach Themselves (via Reddit)

Ethiopia's "newspaper landlords" rent the want-ads by the minute

Ethiopia's "newspaper landlords" are entrepreneurs who rent the right to read a US$0.35 newspaper for 20-30 minutes at a go, for less than $0.01 per rental. Most of their customers are reading the want-ads. Newspaper publishers are ambivalent about the practice -- on the one hand, it creates a newspaper-reading habit among the nation's aspiring poor, but on the other hand, rentals displace some sales -- and the "landlords" complain that customers steal their newspapers.
Tesfaye says that 30 to 40 people will read a single paper. At the end of the day, the well-thumbed publications can be sold on.

"After a newspaper passes its deadline we will sell it to shops who can use it as packaging for items that they sell," says Tesfaye, who says he uses the earnings from his business to support his three siblings.

Renting a read from 'newspaper landlords'