African Union officials have accused China of hacking its headquarters’ computer systems every night for five years and downloading confidential data. Beijing funded the AU’s $200m building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, while a Chinese state-owned company built it.
Analysts said the fact that the hack remained secret for a year after being discovered and that the AU was not commenting publicly demonstrated China’s dominant relationships with African states.
The data theft was exposed by French newspaper Le Monde Afrique and confirmed to the Financial Times on Monday. China denied the accusation.
The hack underscores the risk African nations take in allowing Chinese technology companies such prominent roles in developing their telecoms backbones, despite the US placing restrictions on investment by Huawei and ZTE.
The two companies have “built most of Africa’s telecoms infrastructure”, according to a McKinsey report on Chinese investment in Africa published last year.
Le Monde reported that data transfer activity was at a peak every night between midnight and 2am from January 2012, when the building was inaugurated, to January 2017.
AU technicians discovered the organisation’s secrets were being copied on to servers in Shanghai, according to the article.
The AU has now acquired its own servers and all electronic communication is now encrypted and no longer passes through Ethio Telecom, Ethiopia’s state-run operator. Other enhanced security features have also been installed.
Aly-Khan Satchu, an investment analyst in Nairobi, said the hack was “really alarming”, partly because it exposed that “African countries have no leverage over China”.
He added: “There’s this theory in Africa that China is Santa Claus. It isn’t. Our leaders need to be disavowed of that notion.”
China’s ministry of foreign affairs denied the hacking allegations, calling the reports “baseless” and “complete nonsense”.
“China would in no way interfere with the internal policies of African countries or do anything that would hurt their interests,” it said in a statement on Monday.
AU spokespeople declined to comment but an African diplomat attending the AU’s annual heads of government summit on Monday said there “would be a lot of anger over this”. “This is not the sort of thing Africans will entertain and take lightly,” he said.
However, a western diplomat based in the region said the AU should not have been surprised considering China built and fitted out the 19-storey building that dominates the Addis Ababa skyline.
“When you let them build the whole system, of course they are listening in,” the diplomat said.
One AU official said there were “many issues with the building that are still being resolved with the Chinese. It’s not just cyber security.”
China State Construction Engineering Corporation, the state-owned company that built the headquarters, could not be reached for comment. Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Company, the developer of another building on the AU headquarters site, said it had not seen the report and declined to comment.
Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, promised $60bn in investment and aid to African countries at his last summit with African leaders, in South Africa two years ago. Chinese companies have built much of the road and rail infrastructure across the continent and more than 10,000 Chinese companies are active in the region, according to the McKinsey report.
“There is no other country with such depth and breadth of engagement in Africa across the dimensions of trade, investment, infrastructure financing, and aid,” the consultancy’s report said.
However, concerns about technological backdoors in Chinese tech hardware led US policymakers in 2012 to recommend blocking acquisition attempts from ZTE and Huawei.
Huawei has repeatedly been barred from making acquisitions in the US over national security concerns. This month, American carrier AT&T dropped its deal with Huawei to distribute Chinese-made handsets in the US.
Le Monde also reported that GCHQ, the British government listening agency, had intercepted communications between AU and UN officials in 2009 and 2010, citing documents released by US whistleblower Edward Snowden.
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