The report accused the government of using Chinese and European technology to survey phone calls and internet activity in Ethiopia and among the diaspora living overseas, and HRW said firms colluding with the government could be guilty of abuses.
“The Ethiopian government is using control of its telecom system as a tool to silence dissenting voices,” HRW’s business and human rights director Arvind Ganesan, said in a statement.
“The foreign firms that are providing products and services that facilitate Ethiopia’s illegal surveillance are risking complicity in rights abuses.”
The Ethiopian government dismissed the report as “mud-slinging” and accused the rights watchdog of repeatedly unfairly targeting the country.
“This is one of the issues that it has in the list of its campaigns to smear Ethiopia’s image, so there is nothing new to respond to it, because there is nothing new to it,” Ethiopia’s Information Minister, Redwan Hussein, told AFP.
He said Ethiopia is committed to improving access to telecommunications as part of its development program, not as a means to increase surveillance.
“The government is trying its level best to create access to not only to the urban but to all corners of the country,” Redwan added.
Ethiopia’s phone and internet networks are controlled by the state-owned Ethio Telecom, the sole telecommunications provider in the country.
HRW said the government’s telecommunications monopoly allows it to readily monitor user activity.
“Security officials have virtually unlimited access to the call records of all telephone users in Ethiopia. They regularly and easily record phone calls without any legal process or oversight,” the report said.
The rights watchdog said information gathered was often used to garner evidence against independent journalists and opposition activists, both inside Ethiopia and overseas.
In February, a US man filed a lawsuit against the Ethiopian government, accusing authorities of infecting his computer with spyware to monitor his online activity.
Rights groups have accused Ethiopia of cracking down on political dissenters, independent media and civil society through a series of harsh laws, including anti-terrorism legislation.
Only about 23 percent of Ethiopia’s 91 million people subscribe to mobile phones, and less than one percent have access to mobile internet, according to the International Telecommunications Union.
The government has committed to increasing mobile access by 2015, as part of an ambitious development plan.
Ethiopia has hired two Chinese firms, ZTE and Huawei, to upgrade the mobile network across the country.