U.S. spy program reforms spotlight Nigeria’s expanding surveillance program

Nigerian governemnet has joined the long list of governments spying its citizens online. Photo: Bello Isiaka via Facebook

Government is determined to spy on the people

The promised reforms by the U.S. on its spying program which would acknowledge Americans’ right to privacy has cast the spotlight on the Nigeria’s spy program, with analysts calling for full disclosure.

The Nigerian spy program, recently installed by the Israeli Elbit Security, boasts of as much intrusion capability as the U.S’ National Security Agency prior to the recent restrictions announced by the president of the United States, Barack Obama.

Since Nigeria’s latest surveillance tool became public last year, the government has kept complete sealed lips about the scope of the program and how much privacy Nigerians and perhaps, citizens of other countries targeted would give up.

No limits

PREMIUM TIMES investigations revealed that the Elbit project is far reaching and has the capability to collect massive amounts of electronic data – in all formats – from communications of private individuals in Nigeria and  around the world.

The Nigerian spying system boasts of unlimited capability to intercept and retrieve any data transmitted over the internet and traditional telecom channels, analyse it, and predict the targeted individual. It has the ability to intercept phone calls, read text messages and hack into computers, mobile phones and any internet ready device.

The recently acquired surveillance technology by the Nigerian government is not its first, but an expansion of its long existing desire to be Africa’s surveillance giant.

In 2013, researchers from Citizen Lab, a research project based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, found evidence of the presence of the U.S.-based Blue Coat Systems and the U.K.-based Gamma International in Nigeria.

Blue Coat’s technology primarily aimed at network management, can also be used by the government to invade the privacy of journalists, netizens and their sources. Its censorship devices use Deep Packet Inspection, DPI, a technology employed by many western Internet Service Providers, to manage network traffic and suppress unwanted connections. Blue Coat’s technology has been used by rights-abusing governments, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

A Dutch company, Digivox, which specialises in “lawful and tactical interception systems, secure GSM communication, GPS tracking devices and voice logging” has also been linked to Nigeria.

Participants in a technology forum in Lagos, in May 2013, were told that the State Security Service, SSS, and all Nigerian GSM service providers – MTN Nigeria, Globacom, Airtel Nigeria and Etisalat Nigeria – were already intercepting all forms of electronic communication using the Digivox.

Using a screenshot from Digivox’s website, Lanre Ajayi, President of the Association of Telecommunication Companies of Nigeria, ATCON, revealed the relationship between the Nigerian government and the Dutch company to the public at the event to review the National Communication Commission’s draft regulation for the interception of communication.

Digivox has since pulled down the webpage Mr. Ajayi relied on for his revelations.

Illegal surveillance

Documentations about the Nigerian surveillance projects seen By PREMIUM TIMES in its investigations show that the Nigerian project does not acknowledge internet users’ rights to privacy, rather it helps the government arrogate all shared data of interest to itself without the backing of any law or checks.

Nigeria does not have a detailed law on privacy and data collection, leaving its citizens unprotected from its  government and foreign governments or organisation. The Nigerian internet public is not protected from anyone who can abuse their privacy within or outside Nigeria.

A human rights lawyer, Charles Musa, said Nigeria’s surveillance program will be more “open to abuses,” considering its corrupt system of governance.

“We need a very strong privacy law in this country,” he said. “There is a need for clearly defined rules for which we can tap people’s phones.”

Nigerian government officials frequently defend the government’s spying program citing the American project.

“Everywhere in the world, e-mails are seen by government,” Nigeria’s Information minister, Labaran Maku, said at a democracy audit in Lagos, June, 2013. “Even, the world super-power, America, spies on citizens’ mails to checkmate the activities of unscrupulous elements capable of threatening its internal security.”

Mr. Maku failed to mention the fact that surveillance programmes in Western countries are based on legal grounds and are subject to several legal challenges by the U.K., the U.S. and at the European Court of Human Rights.

Mr. Obama’s recent NSA spying downgrade announcement highlights the dissimilarities between Nigeria and the USA, as well as both surveillance projects.

While the USA spying downgrade followed civil society agitations sparked by the revelations of a former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, the Nigerian spying program leak only drew a short-lived public outcry and a subsequent weak legislative investigation after the leak.

The Nigerian government, apparently ignoring the Nigerian public and legislators, initiated the program late November making it West Africa’s most ambitious third eye.

Scrap It

Some Nigerians have called for the scrapping of the surveillance project, citing its illegality, susceptibility to abuse, and its far reaching implication of relinquishing national security information to foreign countries.

“I will argue that we start from a beginning-which is a democratic context,” Adeolu Ademoyo, a senior lecturer in Yoruba language and culture, Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, said. “The program must go to the parliament. There must be a legal and judicial process through which abuses will be checked. We must show its use, limits, scope and type especially because no two spying programs are the same.”

Mr. Ademoyo argues that Nigeria’s surveillance program violates a basic requirement of spying – which is a sense of autonomy, secrecy from other nations and security from other nations.”

It is unclear the effects the U.S changes would have on the Nigerian spying program, but more Nigerians are demanding full disclosure about the project from the government, as a precursor for a public debate that might trigger reforms.

“The clamour for the disclosure of the spy program must be made first,” Peter Nkanga, a Freedom of Expression and Press Freedom enthusiast said. He argued that unless that is made, the debates on reforms would be baseless.

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