Disquiet over govt’s unusual surveillance on citizens


    In the name of national security, the Federal Government has in recent times been investing a lot in tools for citizens’ surveillance – a situation causing growing concerns, writes JESUSEGUN ALAGBE

    In many countries of the world, the privacy of citizens is facing growing threats from the government’s sophisticated surveillance apparatus. Numerous government agencies are snooping on the private communications of citizens via vast databases created in the name of national security.

    The government’s collection of the citizens’ data may have some advantages, including increased public safety, reduction and prevention of crime rate, identification and arrest of criminals, and provision of evidence and clues in criminal matters.

    However, civil rights activists argue that the government’s collection of sensitive information about the citizens is an invasion of privacy. To worsen the matter, the use of the citizens’ data by many governments across the world have always been rife with abuse.

    Another source of worry for civil rights activists is that once information is in the government’s hands, it can be shared widely and retained for years, and the rules about access and use can be changed entirely in secret without the public ever knowing.

    The Nigerian government in recent times has also shown much interest in acquiring tools for the citizens’ surveillance. Like its counterparts in Europe and America, the Federal Government has also repeated the rhetoric that such surveillance programmes are for national security.

    In early July, the National Assembly approved a N4.87bn budget for the National Intelligence Agency to track, intercept and monitor calls and messages on mobile devices, including Thuraya, as well as social networking platforms like WhatsApp.

    The amount was part of the N895.8bn supplementary budget submitted by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), in June and approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

    Details of the supplementary budget obtained by our correspondent showed that the NIA would spend N2,938,650,000 on the Thuraya interception solution, while the WhatsApp interception solution would gulp N1,931,700,000.

    Apart from this, the NIA got additional N129m to enable its personnel to embark on foreign training.

    But in a country where the government can arbitrarily arrest a critic, clamp down on protesters, shut down a perceived anti-government newspaper or broadcast station, concerns are rising as the government spends heavily on citizens’ surveillance tools and programmes.

    A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr Femi Falana, knocked the proposed WhatsApp monitoring of the citizens.

    “This is illegal as it’s in violent conflict with section 37 of the Nigerian Constitution. Section 37 protects the privacy of the telephone conversation and telegraphic communication of citizens without interference,” he said.

    A non-governmental organisation, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, also criticised the move.

    Apart from WhatsApp monitoring, other citizens’ surveillance projects initiated by the Federal Government include the recent directive by the Nigerian Communications Commission that Nigerians would have to submit the International Mobile Equipment Identity of their phones to it from July.

    The regulatory body said this in the commission’s Revised National Identity Policy for SIM Card Registration – the move being to start the implementation of the Device Management System backed by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd).

    “The implementation of a Centralised Equipment Identity Register, otherwise known as Device Management System, will serve as a repository for keeping records of all registered mobile phones’ International Mobile Equipment Identity and owners of such devices,” NCC said.

    Meanwhile, the NCC later said subscribers did not have to submit their IMEIs to the commission as the data would be captured automatically.

    Although the project’s aim – according to the NCC – is to enhance national security, among other things, experts feared that since the IMEI of a phone enables it to track down its owner, the government might abuse it and use it to arrest critics and opposition members.

    “The IMEI of a phone allows agencies to track the phone’s information, people the phone calls each day and the house address of the people that call on the phone.

    “No doubt, the project can be used to curtail insecurity and track down the bad guys, but when you have a government that is intolerant to criticisms, you cannot but just be wary of the real objectives of such projects,” a cybersecurity expert based in Maryland, the United States, Mr Sola Oyedeji, said.

    Also reacting, SERAP Deputy Director, Kolawole Oluwadare, described the project as illegal, adding that it amounts to mass surveillance which is contrary to the 1999 Constitution.

    He said, “The directive cannot be justified under any circumstances, as it amounts to mass surveillance, which is contrary to the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 (as amended), and violates the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and would have a profound impact on other human rights.

    “Asking Nigerians to submit their Phone ID is illegal and unconstitutional. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Nigeria has ratified, provides that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with their privacy or correspondence.”

    Also recently, the linkage of the citizens’ Subscriber Identification Modules with their National Identity Numbers generated great concerns.

    The programme generated greater concerns when it was revealed that the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, whose ministry oversees the programme, was a sympathiser for global terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

    Pantami renounced his pro-terrorist comments. However, up till today, civil rights groups and many Nigerians fear that the data of Nigerians in the custody of a “repentant” terrorist sympathiser poses a great risk.

    Ceaseless moves to track citizens

    In December 2020, a report by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab stated that Nigeria’s Defence Intelligence Agency had acquired equipment that it could use to spy on the citizens’ calls and text messages.

    Citizen Lab, which researches digital surveillance, security, privacy and accountability, said a telecom surveillance company called Circles had been helping state security apparatuses across 25 countries, including Nigeria, to spy on the communications of opposition figures, journalists, and protesters.

    The report was titled, ‘Running in Circles: Uncovering the Clients of Cyber-espionage Firm Circles.’

    Circles, an Israeli intelligence provider, is known for selling systems to exploit Signalling System 7 (SS7) vulnerabilities and claimed to have sold the technology to several countries, according to the Citizen Lab report.

    SS7 is a system that allows one mobile network to connect with another.

    The report also said Circles was affiliated with Tel Aviv, Israel-based NSO Group, whose mobile tracking software, Pegasus, has allegedly been used by several governments to spy on dissidents by taking control of their smartphones, its cameras and microphones, and mining the users’ personal data.

    “Unlike NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, the SS7 mechanism by which Circles’ product reportedly operates does not have an obvious signature on a target’s phone,” the Citizen Lab report explained.

    According to the report, at least two entities in Nigeria, including the Defence Intelligence Agency, have deployed Circles’ product.

    The report said, “One system may be operated by the same entity as one of the Nigerian customers of the FinFisher spyware that we detected in December 2014.

    “The other client appears to be the Nigerian Defence Intelligence Agency, as its firewall IPs are in AS37258, a block of IP addresses registered to HQ Defence Intelligence Agency, Asokoro, Abuja, Nigeria.”

    Also, in April 2013, the Federal Government under ex-President Goodluck Jonathan reportedly awarded a $40m contract to an Israeli firm for the procurement of the Elbit Systems technology, which would enable the government to intercept all internet activities and invade users’ privacy at will.

    Earlier in the same month of April 2013, researchers at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto alerted that Nigeria, Egypt, and Kenya were deploying internet surveillance and censorship technology developed by an American company, Blue Coat, which specialises in online security.

    Blue Coat’s technology reportedly allows 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.

    According to analysts, DPI not only threatens the principle of Net Neutrality and the privacy of users, but it also makes single users identifiable and often exposes government critics to arbitrary imprisonment, violence or torture.

    Concerns arising

    Although experts argued that it is difficult to fault the need for mass surveillance for the purpose of ensuring national security and particularly track terrorists and other insurgents, they described as troubling the normalising of surveillance in the guise of safety in a polity where legislative oversight and legal protection are missing.

    “Although the Nigerian constitution guarantees the freedom of expression and press, surveillance tools in the hands of the government pose a great risk,” Lagos-based lawyer and social commentator, Mr Tunde Quadri, said.

    “It has been seen time and time again that the Nigerian government doesn’t follow due process in certain issues. If someone criticises it, officials could use their power to arbitrarily arrest and imprison the person,” Quadri added.

    Also, the US Department of State, in its 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Nigeria, expressed concerns about the poor state of human rights in Nigeria.

    It said, “Significant human rights abuses (in 2020) included: arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious abuses in an internal conflict, including killing and torture of civilians; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including the existence of criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association…”

    Also, the Global Information Society Watch, an initiative of the Association for Progressive Communications, noted that the history of governments all over the world was replete with abuse of their citizens’ rights to privacy.

    “With increasing pressure on the government as the national elections draw closer, it can be expected that the views of the people will be ignored and decisions taken to curtail their freedom, while they will have no recourse to the law for redress,” APC said in its report on Nigeria.

    “There will therefore be a need to campaign legislators, policymakers and other stakeholders to raise the concerns,” it added.

    On how to curtail citizens’ surveillance, Dr Christopher Parsons at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab in the Munk School of Global Affairs explained that getting involved in the political process was key.

    He said, “When we’re talking about government mass surveillance, it is a technology-enabled problem but it is also a politically-driven problem.

    “When intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies are involved in indiscriminate mass surveillance, they really are operating – or are meant to be operating – within the scope of existing legislation.”

    According to Parsons, this is why it is up to the people to regularly contact their elected officials to express their concerns about surveillance programmes, and to make it clear to the officials that such programmes must be curtailed.

    CULLED FROM Saturday Punch