ANALYSIS: Understanding Nigeria’s Intelligence Gathering Attitude And its Flaws

SSS Intelligence operatives
SSS operatives

Edward Snowden recently released a book, Permanent Records, where he delved deeper into the technical implementation of the U.S. espionage against its citizens and the rest of the world.

We may argue over the justification of his actions for the next decade, but the book holds important lessons for Nigeria and countries not included in the Five Eyes or FVEY. This lesson is that Data – read as metadata or data about Data – is, perhaps, the most important component of national security.

Why is data important?

In case you are not convinced by the amount of money and man-hours the U.S. and it’s FVEY partners spend annually to acquire, store and analyze data, let’s consider its potency through the perspective of Nigeria versus Boko Haram situation.

Assuming there is a willingness to defeat Boko Haram, we would first know who they are, where they exist, how they feed, how they trade, how they make money, how they spend it, who they talk to, who talks to them, where, who and when they attack, and so on. Now, this is cold data.

If we collected those repeatedly over time, say since Boko Haram became a problem, we could line up these data points and look for trends. Like every other organization, there will be patterns, and the data will tell it better than anyone else.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume they talked to persons A, B, and C, and bought a certain kind of foodstuff before their last three attacks on the University of Maiduguri, the next time we spot that sequence of events, we can guess, with a high degree of confidence, that an attack on the University is imminent. This is intelligence.

The army can, therefore, ambush them. This is the goal of intelligence and the long game in data.

Proprietary intelligence is a major determinant of success in competitive environments such as global diplomacy and the cat-and-mouse game between nations and adversaries. It is easier to defeat your enemy in battles if you know something about them that they do not know or are not aware you know.

“With advance information, costly mistake can be avoided, destruction averted, and the way to lasting victory made clear.” Sun Tzu said in his Art of War.

According to Snowden, the U.S. has two broad projects that put the world’s information at their fingertips – PRISM and Upstream Collection. With PRISM, the U.S. routinely collects data from local companies like Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Apple, etc. These data include email, photos, video, audio chats, web-browsing contents, search queries and all other data stored in their system.

With Upstream Collection, the U.S. intelligence practically sits between your computer or phone and the internet services you use. What this means is that before your friend got the last Whatsapp message you sent, it passed through the U.S. intelligence and they took note. They may not have seen the content of your message because it is encrypted, but they know all other data that is associated with that message, such as the sender and receiver, when it was sent, etc.

The Problem with Nigeria’s Signal Intelligence Attitude

Signal Intelligence decisions made by officials largely prioritize the interest of the individual, then the government, the state, before citizens and the nation. Unlike its peers, policy-level decisions made around national data do not project Nigeria’s power. It does not preserve nationhood either.

Over the last decade, I have investigated and reported on several mass surveillance projects by the Nigerian intelligence and political community. In all cases I looked at, none of the tools used by the intelligence community for SIGINT (SIGnal INTelligence) were made in Nigeria. And, as of 2019, Nigeria had run through at least 10 mass surveillance projects with hardware and software it had no absolute control over.

Nigeria owns an aggressive collection of surveillance tools. We are not so much different from the U.S. in this regard. The difference is that unlike the U.S., we do not have exclusive access to the data we collect.

The toolbox of Nigeria’s intelligence community is packed with software and hardware manufactured or owned by Israel, the United States, Bulgaria, and France.

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Going by Snowden’s revelations, the U.S. already has direct and unrestricted backdoor access to Nigeria’s classified information. The rest of our supplier nations potentially do as well.

With a security architecture designed to protect individuals in government from citizens and the nation, Nigeria’s security strategy is usually short term and avoids long term efforts like growing an internal capability to build homegrown solutions through research and innovation.

When Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa state needed to track his political opponents, he bought the services of the Italian Hacking Team. When former president, Goodluck Jonathan, needed to surveil Nigerians and the media, he went for Engage GI2 by Verint Systems (U.S.) and Elbit Wise Technology (Israel). Since 2017, President Muhammadu Buhari has been pumping billions of Naira into a Stravinsky Project (executed by Verint Systems ).

When the U.S. needs similar solutions, it turns to local security agencies who strictly use local companies and resources to develop its Signal Intelligence capabilities.

A software engineer in the U.S. would be breaking the law if she comes as close as standing over the shoulder of a colleague working on source codes meant for the U.S. government without security clearance. Yet, the entire hardware and software components running Nigeria’s SIGINT infrastructure are built and serviced by foreign business interests.

The least outcome for Nigeria is that all the SIGINT ware operational in the country passively collects usage data “to help manufacturers improve” the product. This, alone, is valuable intelligence for the manufacturer’s country.

Why Do We Prefer To Buy?

The Intelligence community is not alone in this buy-foreign-over-build ideology. It is, in fact, a widespread way of thinking about solutions by people who get into government. When our president needs a car, he buys from Mercedes Benz (Germany). When he needs an ENT doctor, he flies to a London (United Kingdom) clinic.

When Nigeria needed an identity management system in 2010, it turned to MasterCard, a U.S. financial institution. This is the equivalent of the U.S. handing over its social security system to the Chinese’ TenCent.

Does it mean that Nigerian officials sincerely do not understand the inviolability of national data, or are there other paradigms at play? What is the motivation for this unpatriotism?

Before you conclude on the answer, one would need to look at Nigeria’s defence and security contracting in the last decade.

Generally, procurement is easy. You will never have to go through the cycles of failures, long waits, and disappointments inventors endure in the process of innovation.

But procurement is especially attractive to a Nigerian official faced with the responsibility of deciding a SIGINT solution for the country, for two reasons.

First, it easily satisfies the politics inclined intelligence strategy of governments. As evident in Nigeria, the trillions of Naira shoveled out to “buy” massive surveillance tools over the past decade have mostly earned us simple arrests of journalists and activists. Less than 100 km from Aso Rock, kidnappers reign uncontrolled while Boko Haram, “Bandits” and pirates have continued to hold their grounds in other parts of Nigeria.

Secondly, security procurement in Nigeria is what it is. The boss decides what to buy and who to buy from – usually at prices, 100 folds higher than the market price. The boss also chooses the contractor to mediate between the government and the manufacturers. The contractor gets paid by the government, redistributes to everyone in the chain – including the boss – and the rest is history.

According to a Transparency International report, a network of Nigerian military chiefs, politicians, and contractors worked together to steal more than N3.1 trillion from Nigerians through security contracts between 2008 and 2017.

The inclination of Nigeria’s intelligence policymakers to disproportionately favour “buy” over “build” sacrifices the security of Nigerians for the gratification of influenced elections and tightly controlled media.

We may have been a self-governing entity for 59 years but true independence today means absolute control of our national data. Grow solutions locally.

Local solutions guarantee patriotic codes. It creates jobs, projects national power, and yields economic benefits as well.



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