Addis Ababa – China’s Ambassador to the African Union on Monday denounced as “absurd” a report by French newspaper Le Monde alleging that Beijing has been spying on the continental body.
The report published last week claims technicians at the body’s headquarters in the Ethiopian capital discovered last year that the contents of their computers had been regularly copied to servers in Shanghai since 2012, citing several unnamed AU sources.
“I think the report is a sensational story, but is also preposterous and absurd,” Chinese envoy Kuang Weilin said on the sidelines of the AU summit in Addis Ababa.
The twice-yearly meeting is taking place in a soaring conference hall built by the Chinese as a symbol of their friendship with Africa and inaugurated the same year the alleged spying began.
Weilin said the report published last week on the eve of the summit “will undermine the image of the newspaper” but not the relationship between China and Africa.
The AU leadership did not address the report in their opening remarks on Sunday, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn downplayed Le Monde’s findings.
“There is nothing to be spied (on). I don’t believe it,” he told journalists.
Le Monde says the AU’s servers were changed and its IT systems redone after the copying was found.
The newspaper also reports Ethiopian cyber security experts removed microphones hidden in the desks and walls of the headquarters.
The report said China built and paid for the African Union’s computer network but alleges that China 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.”
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.