The Nigerian government is rumoured to have sealed a $40m dollar contract for internet surveillance technology. There is no clear justification for this “secret” deal, and no assurance that the technology would be used fairly, given Nigeria’s lack of established rights for citizen privacy. By Nwachukwu Egbunike and Dominic Burbidge.
In April 2013, Nigerian news site Premium Times revealed government plans to purchase equipment that would allow it to conduct online surveillance on an unprecedented scale. The government reportedly contracted with Israeli company Elbit Systems Ltd to advance the Internet and computer-based gathering of Nigerian citizens’ personal data.
While the blogosphere reacted in outrage, the government neither confirmed nor denied the allegation. By May, warning bells exposing the government’s interest in digital surveillance rang once more. Nigeria was among the 11 countries discovered by Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto research centre, to have FinFisher surveillance software in its possession. Gamma International, the UK-based manufacturer of FinFisher, describes its products as offering “governmental IT intrusion and remote monitoring solutions.” FinFisher products can obtain passwords from a computer, monitor Skype calls, and even turn on a computer’s camera and sound recording.
As sourcing in the Premium Times’ initial report was thin, many wondered if the coverage had been exaggerated. But when Minister of Information Labaran Maku gave an interview to Channels Television, the seriousness suddenly became clear.
In the interview, the minister admitted the Nigerian government was indeed planning to spy on her netizens. Maku remarked: “most countries in the world […] monitor internet. There is no country in the world where communication is not monitored. There are issues of security involved, particularly in a country like Nigeria where we are having challenges of terror, […] where terror uses technology to destroy lives. […] That does not mean assault on the rights of citizens.”
The government’s justification was not swallowed by internet users. In this op-ed column in YNaija, an online Nigerian newspaper, Gbenga Sesan asserted: “While the act of surveillance, for the purpose of ensuring national security, might appear noble, it is important to explain how lazy governance is at play again, in what could take Nigeria many years back into the military era when surveillance became a tool of oppression by the State. How does a nation that has no Data Privacy laws or legal provision for interception seek to monitor communication?”
Mr Sesan continued: “Internet surveillance is not something that should be freely given to security agencies that still show signs of military-era tactics. Indeed, many Nigerians are unlearning various things from that military era. Security agencies need to work, but lazy governance does not produce sustainable solutions. Nigeria must put appropriate laws, checks and balances in place first.”
The lower house of Nigeria’s parliament has since ordered the immediate suspension of the $40m contract, indicating that its secrecy may stand in violation of the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2007. But whether the executive will heed their directive is a separate issue entirely.
An editorial for The Guardian (Nigeria) has called for a halt to the plan, citing the dangers it presents for citizens’ rights to privacy. At the same time, the Nigerian government has offered the public no specific information on local, computer-based threats that might justify such a large investment.
Domestic security in Nigeria is regularly threatened by the operations of Boko Haram, a terrorist Islamist group operating in the north of the country and willing to use violence to further its aims. Boko Haram is said to have claimed the lives of perhaps 10,000 people since 2001, rendering the organisation Nigeria’s “number one merchant of destruction.” Given the physical presence of this threat, the need to instead pour money into high-technology tools for internet and computer surveillance is mystifying. Furthermore, parallels with the current debate in the United States on the NSA and Edward Snowden’s leaks are only too clear. If in the West the reach of government through technology is being called into question, is this really the best time for the Nigerian government to invest?
16 July 2013
By Nwachukwu Egbunike and Dominic Burbidge. A version of this article was originally published on Global Voices.