Acting on a tip from Japanese cyber researchers, the African Union’s technology staffers discovered that a group of suspected Chinese hackers had rigged a cluster of servers in the basement of an administrative annex to quietly siphon surveillance videos from across the AU’s sprawling campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.
The security breach was carried out by a Chinese hacking group nicknamed “Bronze President,” according to a five-page internal memo reviewed by Reuters.
It said the affected cameras covered “AU offices, parking areas, corridors, and meeting rooms.”
“We cannot estimate the quantity and value of the data which have been stolen,” the memo continued, adding that while AU technicians had managed to interrupt the flow of data, the hackers could easily regain the upper hand.
“We are still weak to prevent another attack,” the memo said.
Chinese workers built the AU’s showpiece new conference center in 2012 and Chinese technicians still help maintain the organization’s digital infrastructure. Some American and European officials have voiced concern as Beijing has stepped in to meet the AU’s needs – part of an Africa-wide shift that has seen China become the continent’s top creditor.
We are “brothers”
The Chinese mission to the AU said in an email that “The AU side has not mentioned being hacked on any occasion” and that Africa and China are “Good friends, partners and brothers.”
“We never interfere in Africa’s internal affairs and wouldn’t do anything that harms the interests of the African side,” the email said.
Longstanding doubts over Beijing’s role at the AU spilled into the open in 2018, when French newspaper Le Monde reported here that AU employees had found that the servers at the new conference center were sending copies of their contents to Shanghai every night and that the building itself had been rigged with listening devices.
Both the AU and the Chinese government vehemently denied the report at the time, but a former AU official told Reuters the article in Le Monde was accurate and had put officials there on high alert over cyberespionage.
Any official protest over the spying is unlikely, according to the former AU official. He said China plays a critical role in keeping the organization running, including during an incident in June when part of the AU’s network was knocked out by a power failure and Chinese technicians swiftly repaired the damage.