In 2012, the Chinese government gave the African Union a gift. They offered to build the new $200m African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa. Since then, ministers and heads of state meet twice a year at this facility to discuss major issues affecting the continent.
But it turns out that nothing is really truly free, because this act of friendship and diplomacy turned out to be the worst kind of self-serving move. China built the AU headquarters for free, and installed high-tech computer and security systems, also for free. And while the strict security measures gave the impression that that building is closely monitored and secured, an unseen security threat was present from 2012 until 2017.
In a move that is not at all surprising, it turns out that the building is riddled with microphones, with the donated computers transmitting all voice data back to servers in Shanghai every night. The Chinese government has allegedly been using the building to spy on the activities and discussions being conducted by leaders of the AU.
An investigation conducted by Le Monde Afrique exposed the Chinese espionage efforts. According to the report, for five years, between midnight and 2 a.m., computer servers at the headquarters were reaching peak data transfer activity. A computer scientist noticed this and a technical investigation revealed that all the AU servers were connected to servers in Shanghai.
Every night, the secrets of the AU were being stored more than 8,000 km away by what was thought to be a diplomatic ally of Africa. The Chinese had put an unofficial "backdoor" into the security system that allowed Chinese administrators access to the AU’s computing system giving them access to information.
In the funniest twist that there is, after the AU found out about the Chinese spying efforts, China again offered to help the AU purchase and configure new servers. So, they actually think we're stupid, it would seem.
China is not alone in this. The US National Security Agency (NSA) and the British intelligence agencies (GCHQ) have had their share of surveillance on the AU building, according to documents which were extracted by Le Monde Afrique, in collaboration with The Intercept.
The AU has now acquired its own servers and is making moves to encrypt all electronic communications. Cybersecurity experts have also swept through the building’s rooms and disposed of microphones placed under the desks and in walls by the Chinese workers.