Mon | May 20, 2019

Peter Espeut | A modern Trojan horse

Published:Friday | March 15, 2019 | 12:17 AM
Jamaica’s new Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters in downtown Kingston being constructed by the Chinese.

I am grateful to a friend for drawing my attention to China’s gift to the African Union (AU) of a new headquarters in Addis Ababa, completed in 2012. It was completely funded, furnished and equipped, and built by China, and the building – the largest in Addis Ababa – plays host to biannual AU summits.

In January 2018, a report in the African edition of the French newspaper Le Monde, confirmed by the Financial Times of London, claimed that in early 2017, it was discovered that secret microphones, embedded in the walls and furniture of the AU headquarters, were listening in on all the personal and diplomatic conversations in the building – confidential and otherwise – and storing them on hidden computers. Late every night, these hidden computers were connecting to servers in Shanghai, and uploading the files containing these recordings for later analysis by the Chinese secret service.

AU authorities brought in security experts from Algeria (in North Africa) to sweep the entire headquarters for potential bugs, Le Monde said, leading to the discovery of microphones hidden in desks and elsewhere, which were subsequently removed.

It was also discovered that the China-supplied computer systems in the AU headquarters were also connecting nightly to servers in Shanghai, and uploading the files on the AU computers into the possession of the Chinese espionage services. Subsequently, AU authorities removed the computer systems, and replaced them with new bug-free ones; the AU politely refused a Chinese offer to configure the replacement system.

Le Monde alleged that the AU then covered up the hack to protect Chinese investments on the continent.

This brings to mind the old story of how the Greeks defeated the army of Troy and captured their city, by leaving behind a huge wooden horse as a gift, and pretending to sail away in defeat. The Trojans wheeled the huge horse inside their city, but that night a platoon of elite Greek troops hidden inside the belly of the horse, emerged and opened the gates of the city, allowing the main force (which had returned under cover of night) to capture and plunder the city.

The famous phrase that has come down to us from this incident is, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”.

ADDICTED TO CHEAP LOANS

Very many African governments have been quick to accept bounteous gifts offered by the government of China. On my recent trip to Niamey in Niger and Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, I saw spanking new China-built bridges and roads and other infrastructure.

So many countries are addicted to cheap loans, all of which have to be repaid; and if they cannot repay, well … .

The ‘gift’ of a new AU headquarters building was a genuine modern-day Trojan horse, allowing the donors to invade through the ‘back doors’ written into the computer software which was part of the gift.

The lesson for us is that we must beware of Greeks bearing gifts, and unsolicited proposals.

Could this African anecdote have any relevance for us here in Jamaica?

The same country which placed bugs into the walls of the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa during construction is currently building our spanking new Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters, where delicate negotiations and discussions will take place.

That same country has also submitted an unsolicited proposal to construct a new Jamaican parliament building, with offices for parliamentarians, and where private and confidential discussions will take place in the corridors and caucus rooms.

Is there cause for concern? You tell me!

I was going to say that I hope the Special Branch (counter-espionage unit) of the Jamaica Constabulary Force has the capacity to sweep our new foreign affairs building for bugs, but then I remembered that a few years ago, the Government abolished the Special Branch.

I hope that the Military Intelligence Unit of the Jamaica Defence Force is up to the task.

Or maybe we will have to bring in security experts from the United States of America or the United Kingdom (or Israel?) to do the sweeping; but then, how will we know if they won’t just plant their own bugs.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.