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The Internet Surveillance Controversy

05 May 2013

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The federal government’s alleged attempt to monitor the Internet communications of citizens has been opposed as an erosion of privacy rights and a trap against perceived opponents, but the issues need to be clearly communicated by the government. Vincent Obia writes

Even for a citizenry with a high opinion of their leaders, government’s attempt to invade people’s privacy is bound to attract angry reactions from the populace. Generally, in Nigeria, citizens tend to have a pretty low opinion of government. And ahead of 2015, President Goodluck Jonathan seems to be in an awkward situation where he has to always work hard to reassure the public that his policy initiatives are not merely part of a political struggle waged at society’s expense.

It was amid this unenviable position that reports emerged last week that the federal government had launched an Internet surveillance scheme to monitor the internet communications of Nigeria’s estimated 47 million Internet users. The report raised recrimination, but the government’s silence over it has given rise to even greater speculation.

The contract for the Internet surveillance system is said to have been awarded to an Israeli firm, Elbit Systems, at the cost of $40 million. It is believed in some quarters that the project is meant primarily to monitor the Internet communications of critics, especially journalists and perceived opponents of the Jonathan government.

Though, the report had originated from the online media, reactions to it made headline news in most national newspapers. Action Congress of Nigeria, in a statement last Sunday by its National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said the government was out to invade civil liberties with the Internet supervision contract, concluding that the failure to deny the deal since it was reported indicate that it is true.   

ACN said, “For a government that is increasingly paranoid, having failed to meet the yearnings and aspirations of the citizenry, who are justifiably becoming restive by the day, the ability to spy on the Internet communications of citizens as well as to intercept and read private emails, not to talk of being able to suppress unwanted connections, is a potent weapon against the civil rights of Nigerians as well as the constitutionally-guaranteed rights like freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of association.

“It is common knowledge that the Jonathan administration has been getting a bad rap from Nigerians in the traditional media as well as the social media – a veritable platform for the citizens to vent their frustrations at a do-nothing government-.

“It is also common knowledge that journalists have borne the brunt of the administration’s increasing propensity to stifle freedom of expression and press freedom, while members of the opposition are being portrayed more and more as enemies of the administration, rather than being seen as indispensable allies in the nation’s quest to evolve a strong and enduring democracy.
“These may have been the motivation for the administration to acquire the Internet surveillance capability.”

The federal government has yet to respond to the controversial surveillance deal. Presidential aides claim ignorance of the contract. And Minister of Information and Communications, Mr. Labaran Maku, would neither pick his calls nor respond to text messages, when THISDAY sought confirmation of the allegations.

The government’s silence over an issue as sensitive as the invasion of civil liberties gives the impression that it is up to some sinister scheme. In this age of social media, when the walls of secrecy around government business have been substantially broken down, no government worth its salt can afford to portray itself as a theatre of delusion where attempts are made to cover up issues that are already in the public domain or gag truth.

Besides, the government owes the people a duty to always answer questions arising from its activities. And to try to evade the issues is hypocritical and irresponsible and, in fact, a great disservice to the public psyche.   

Elbit Systems had announced penultimate Wednesday “it was awarded an approximately $40 million contract to supply a country in Africa with the Wise Intelligence Technology (WiT[TM]) System for Intelligence Analysis and Cyber Defence.” It said the system would be supplied within two years.

“A highly advanced end-to-end solution, WiT™ supports every stage of the intelligence process, including the collection of the data from multiple sources, databases and sensors, processing of the information, supporting intelligence personnel in the analysis and evaluation of the information and disseminating the intelligence to the intended recipient.

“WiT[TM] will be integrated with various data sources, including Elbit Systems’ Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) solution and Elbit Systems’ PC Surveillance Systems (PSS), an advance solution for covert intelligence gathering,” the company stated.

Elbit Systems’ vague announcement of the $40 million contract in Africa raises curiosity. This is more so when it is not in the tradition of the company to conceal such contracts. Barely five days after its unclear announcement of the Internet surveillance contract in the unnamed African country, Elbit Systems declared it was to supply electro-optical observation and surveillance systems for the Brazilian border security programme known as SISFRON. The company had also in 2007 supplied an integrated coastal surveillance system to Lithuania under a $10 million contract that it disclosed to the world.

Why Elbit Systems chose not to make clear the destination of its so-called African surveillance contract is difficult to decipher. But security experts say the contract’s benefitting country may decide to conceal its identity for a number of reasons, provided the item or service in the transaction does not breach international law.

Perhaps, the timing of the surveillance contract has led to the suggestion that Nigeria might be the African country concerned. The country faces grave security challenges and most Nigerians would welcome appropriate measures to protect the cyber space against terror, drug trafficking, and fraudulent financial transactions. But many believe Internet security is not the same thing as the Internet surveillance that the government appears to pursue.

Experts say the surveillance system the government is suspected to be pursuing threatens the principle of net neutrality and privacy of users. It makes single users identifiable and susceptible to harassment and sundry security threats. This certainly would be a dangerous tool in the hands of the government in a country like Nigeria, where the institutions are not only weak but are always available and ready to carry out the wishes of the president against perceived enemies, however unlawful.  

The federal government must come clean on the Internet surveillance question. Taking security precautions is nice. But transparency is the way to reassure a people that look on politicians and government with a cynical eye.
political notes

Tags: Politics, Nigeria, Featured, Internet Surveillance

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