Nigerian government under fire for expansion of surveillance programs

News & Analysis
Nigerian government under fire for expansion of surveillance programs

A sizeable political controversy has engulfed President Goodluck Jonathan’s Government in Nigeria, where details surrounding its plans for the total surveillance of Africa’s most populous country continue to emerge.

Thanks to pervasive snooping technology readily found and developed in the US, UK, Israel and the Netherlands, the already spy-equipped security forces in Nigeria will have greater and more intimate access to the lives of some 56 million Internet users and 115 million active fixed and mobile phone subscribers. The plans have been roundly condemned by Nigeria’s civil society and press, who fear a drift back to Nigeria’s dictatorial past and to the threat it poses to their fundamental human rights.  The apparent lack of any meaningful judicial framework and oversight for the deployment of the technology has so far not stopped government authorities pushing ahead with increased surveillance.

Inevitably, Nigeria’s administration has been quick to cite the threat posed by Boko Haram – a militant Islamist movement operating in the country – as justification, and officials are reported to have even pointed to the Snowden revelations as validation for the surveillance state.

(In)Security we trust

The implications of surveillance and freedom of expression are particularly well understood in Nigeria, having has only recently emerged from military dictatorship. However, Nigerian activists fear that their government are justifying their push to expand their surveillance capabilties by playing on fears of insecurity and the threat of terrorism, lines routinely used by governments around the world to justify intrusions into privacy, the suppression of dissent and gross violations of fundamental human rights.

These fears a certainly justified. Earlier this year, four journalists were reportedly arrested by security forces for writing that President Jonathan had instructed that “everything be done to frustrate the merged opposition parties”, including the surveillance of opposition. Amnesty International last year highlighted horrific human rights abuses by the security forces in Nigeria in response to attacks, including enforced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial executions, the torching of homes and detention without trial.

Against this backdrop, civil society and industrial bodies in Nigeria have become increasingly concerned with the lack of an existing legal framework in which surveillance systems can operate, with no laws governing the interception of private communications. So when the telecommunications regulator, the Nigeria Communications Commission, circulated a Draft Lawful Interception of Communications Regulation in May this year (in light of the fact that primary legislation has been slow to make its way through Nigeria’s National Assembly), it was met with opposition by the telecommunications industry itself on privacy grounds.

Nevertheless, following the publication of the regulation, the NCC invited tenders for the award of 25 consultancies:

A Consultancy on Surveillance and Intelligence Gathering Activities;
Review of the Readiness of Social Media Networks and its Implications for Telecommunications Regulation and National Security;
Development of a Technical Framework for Data Filtering in Telecommunications Networks;
and Development of a Technical Framework for the Use of Social Media Networks.

In addition to the Draft Lawful Interception of Communications Regulation, a Cyber Security Bill focusing on security, crime prevention and protecting infrastructure is also up for review by parliament this year. This bill has also raised many red flags, as it could severely impact upon privacy and freedom of expression by allowing authorities to target users without judicial oversight.

Buy! Buy! Buy!

Despite the current legislative uncertainty, and the legitimate fears of stakeholders and people from across Nigeria, the groundwork for creating a massive surveillance regime in Nigeria is already being laid, with the shopping spree to acquire surveillance technology under way.

In April, Israeli Elbit Systems announced a $40 million contract with “a country in Africa” for its Wise Intelligence Technology, presumably unaware of the fact that Nigeria’s 2013 federal budget allotted $60 million for a “Wise Intelligence Network Harvest Analyser System”, among other surveillance systems. Sources within the government confirmed the deal to reporters for the Premium Times - much to the dismay of President Jonathan.

No stranger to controversy, Elbit - a company subject to disinvestment from a substantial amount of global funds because they provide surveillance for the separation wall in Israel - revealed that it would provide a “highly advanced end-to-end solution,” to Nigeria. By supporting “every stage of the intelligence process”, the system will allow the Nigerian security forces full access to the emails and internet usage within the country.

And earlier this year, 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 US-based Blue Coat Systems and the UK-based Gamma International in Nigeria. Blue Coat’s technology, primarily aimed at network management, can also be used for surveillance and tracking, and has also been found in a host of sensitive, rights-abusing regimes, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. And as reported here previsouly, Gamma’s FinFisher is one of the most obtrusive surveillance systems on the market.

Most recently, however, the Dutch company Digivox, which specialises in “lawful and tactical interception systems" - GPS tracking devices, voice logging, monitoring centres used for the interception of all modern communicaitons - has been linked to Nigeria and its ever-expanding surveillance apparatus.

Speaking at an event to review the NCC’s draft regulation for the interception of communication, the President of the Association of Telecommunication Companies of Nigeria, Lanre Ajayi, reportedly revealed the relationship between Nigeria and the Dutch company. Displaying a screenshot from the Digivox website, the audience learned that Nigeria’s State Security Services and the main GSM network providers in the country deploy Digivox technology, and that Digivox lists the country and its telcos as references to the company’s capabilities.

At the moment, the company’s exports are currently unregulated by Dutch authorities, and have been sold to law enforcement and intelligence agencies in over 15 countries worldwide, accordingto Digivox's website.

Africa’s Surveillance Giant

This shopping spree is ostensibly spurred by the demand for better intelligence in face of continued attacks by the violent extremist movement Boko Haram ("Western Education is Sinful"). Boko Haram asserts an Islamic Jihadist narrative; the group is estimated to have killed 3,600 people in Nigeria since 2009 while targeting mainly “Western” and Christian sites as well as mosques and Muslim schoolchildren. While some reports have been quick to paint the group as an al-Qaeda “cell” motivated by religious sectarianism, others look to their location in the North East of the country and argue that their motivations are more convincingly explained within the local context and by regional fractures related to territory, ethnicity, marginalization, and the economy.

Similarly to government authorities in the US and UK, Nigerian federal government figures justify disproportionate and unnecessary surveillance practices on the grounds of national security. “Everywhere in the world, e-mails are seen by government”, asserts Nigeria’s Information minister, Labaran Maku, adding that “Even, the world super-power, America, spies on citizens’ mails to checkmate the activities of unscrupulous elements capable of threatening its internal security.”

While Maku is certainly not wrong about the actions of the US, he fails to mention the fact that such surveillance programmes are based on highly dubious legal grounds and currently subject to several legal challenges within the UK, the US and at the European Court of Human Rights.

But what is perhaps more worrisome is that this quote encapsulates how surveillance measures undertaken by the Five Eyes (USA, Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand) set precedents around the world for “acceptable” government actions. Not only, then, are companies based in these countries exporting their surveillance technologies around the world with no governmental oversight, these governments are now also exporting their surveillance policies, allowing all nations to claim legitimacy to whatever mass and invasive spying regimes a State seeks to build.