Did China spy on the African Union’s Headquarters computers?

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

The African Union’s shiny new headquarters was built and paid for by the Chinese government, as a gift to its “African friends”. (Reuters)

According to an in-depth and a stunning investigation by French newspaper Le Monde, in January 2017, the information technology unit at the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa noticed something strange, 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 Verge reports that China’s ambassador to the AU, Kuang Weilin, called the claims “absurd” in response, and denied China used the infrastructure for spying. “I really question its [the report’s] intention,” Weilin told a group reporters on Monday, as reported by the BBC. “I think it will undermine and send a very negative message to people. I think it is not good for the image of the newspaper itself. Certainly, it will create problems for China-Africa relations.”

The AU moved quickly to remedy the situation by purchasing its own computer servers and encrypting its data and communications. Without official confirmation from the Chinese government, it’s unclear what the purpose of a cyber-espionage operation was beyond an apparent desire to keep an eye on the Pan-African region and monitor its governmental policymaking.

Such reports are sure to further complicate the relationship between Chinese companies, which are intertwined with the country’s government, and the rest of the world, specifically the United States in which some Chinese companies perform a majority of overseas business. Chinese phone maker Huawei lost a deal with AT&T earlier this month to sell its new smartphone, the Mate 10, in the US over concerns of government spying. Huawei CEO Richard Yu addressed the situation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on January 9th, going off-script to say, “We are serving over 70 million people worldwide. We’ve proven our quality, we’ve proven our privacy and security protection.”

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