Group Faults Planned Use of Subscribers’ Data in COVID-19 Fight

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Ggenga Sesan

By Emma Okonji

Paradigm Initiative, a pan-African social enterprise working to advance digital rights and inclusion in Africa, is concerned about Nigeria’s Governors’ Forum attempts to collaborate with telecoms operators to use subscriber data to mitigate the effect of COVID-19 pandemic.

They insisted that such plan negates the Nigeria Data Protection Regulation, which seeks to protect the data of all Nigerians.

The National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), had on January 25 this year, issued the Nigeria Data Protection Regulation 2019, which was modeled after the European Union (EU) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

The NITDA’s Data Protection Regulation applies to all residents of Nigeria, all citizens of Nigeria residing outside of Nigeria and all organisations processing personal data of individuals. According to the regulation, the processing of personal data may only be processed if at least one of five legal bases are met, which stipulates that the data subject provides consent, and there are specific requirements for obtaining consent.

Therefore, the group was of the view that the planned use of subscriber data in accessing the history and behaviour of people for the fight against COVID-19, negates the privacy of the subscriber, if the telecoms operator did not seek the consent of the subscriber before releasing his or her data.

The CEO of Paradigm Initiative, Mr. Ggenga Sesan, in a statement, said the report that MTN and the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) have entered into a data-sharing partnership, following a presentation by MTN, to mine and provide its users’ data to profile states vulnerability in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus, negates the rights of MTN subscribers if they were not approached to seek their consent before releasing such subscriber data.

The statement added: “While efforts to mitigate and control the spread and sting of this novel coronavirus are appreciated, the existing fundamental rights of users must be protected at all times.
“First, it is important to state that no other time than now presents MTN and other Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) with the opportunity to be transparent with the public about the sharing of Mobile Operator Data with governments or agencies and to help counter misinformation and raise awareness of data sharing to help combat COVID-19.”

Reacting to the concern of Paradigm Initiative, the President of the Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Mr. Olusola Teniola, said: “Data protection, data privacy and digital rights are very sensitive areas that underpin the digital economy. It has to been seen by government that any approach they take concerning consumer data is handled with utmost care and is treated with the highest level of ethics.

“Otherwise, the ability to get citizens’ information in the future will be jeopardised. It appears that unless we have data that is used specifically for tracking and doesn’t disclose medical details of individuals then a case may exist on the same precedence set by China in how they utilised data to fight the pandemic.”

He, however, said if MTN or any other operator would abide by the data protection regulations and existing laws regarding data protection, then it will not be infringing on subscribers’ rights.

“As it is the SIM registration, database is already used to contain consumer and hence citizen data that is shared with security agencies in the fight against kidnapping and other crimes.

“In order to effectively fight the COVID-19 pandemic, advanced tools rely on robust and correct data to assist government in effective measures,” Teniola added.

Paradigm Initiative asserted that it was not lie in the power of MTN Nigeria to arbitrarily use, distribute or grant third-party access for the processing of users’ data.

Information such as the travel history of MTN users, their current location, and other sensitive information are private data that should absolutely not be commodity in a partnership, irrespective of noble intentions.

According to Sesan, “If NGF believes that accessing and processing the location and travel history data of MTN users is the most innovative way to help public health in Nigeria, then Paradigm Initiative calls on the NGF to follow the legally stipulated process to transparently secure such data.”