Government is spying on you through E-mails, tweets and Facebook -Gbenga Sesan speaks on Internet security

Gbenga Sesan on ConversationsThe open internet is perhaps the most important free speech of our time, but with reports that the Nigerian government has awarded a $40M Internet surveillance contract to Elbit Systems; monitoring and surveillance of activities online pose a threat to the 47 million internet users. On the Conversations series this week , Abang Mercy speaks to the Executive Director, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN), Mr. Gbenga Sesan. He talks on the issues and why every Nigerian internet users should be concerned.

It is alleged that President Jonathan has awarded a $40million contract to an Israeli company to monitor computer and internet communication by Nigerians, what do you say of this move?

First I say the allegation is getting closer to being confirmed. One of the things I think Nigerians have access to right now is the proposed budget for 2015. What you will find there is a provision for exactly what the government has been accused of paying for.

Specifically the company providing the surveillance service calls their project WIT, when you check the budget proposal for 2013 you will find exactly the same thing, Wise Intelligent Network Harvest System, Open Source Internet Monitoring System, Personal Internet Surveillance System, Purchase of Encrypted communication equipment. Evidently this is not something that government can easily deny, even if they deny this particular contract, they can’t deny the fact that there is an intention to monitor the internet.

Putting this in context, it is not something that only Nigeria does or wants to do. But anywhere else where this is done, there is a set of rules put in place. In other countries where this is being done, an act categorized as lawful interception, provisions are made such as a court warrant, state reasons for such actions, as well as informing the person involved with their personal data.

But in the case of Nigeria, what has happened is different; we are coming from the military era and still working out ways to unlearn certain practices like how the military and institutions such as the SSS constantly invade privacy of all.

Nigeria has also had this bill for a long time without it being passed. In doing this, government is doing exactly what it ought to have done. But not through ways such as using primary legislation, where people ask questions and also offer suggestions. It was done through a draft regulation on lawful interception through the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). The problems are that, NCC is a government agency, and such legislation cannot be passed through secondary legislation because it is something that citizens have a right to give feedback on. There was a statement that the government has invested $40million for surveillance and monitoring of the internet.

This is for a country that over the last two years citizens have become active online, asking questions, from the government. If you put this together the intention of the government will be clear. I would like people to inform the government that there is a process for doing things if those things are to work well especially in the face of complications as was witnessed during the fuel subsidy demonstrations as well as the more recent case of the amnesty program.

What does government actions in censoring the internet say to the 47 million Nigerian Internet users?

The implication for internet users in Nigeria is that your right to send a private e-mail from one place to another will be breached because you have no idea who has access to it which is a problem in a country like Nigeria where you have oppositions who can use such a case against you. The total implication is that information freedom has been breached.

The Information Minister, Labaran Maku had said during an interview with Channels Television that the move by government to monitor activities online is not intended to invade the privacy of citizens but to ensure security of lives and property, citing other democracies like South Africa, the US and United Kingdom where there is some sort of internet control

But that’s not true; the truth is what government is asking for is both surveillance and monitoring. That is the government is asking for the right to check not just in the name of security. It says anyone is subject to surveillance; there may be need for security, but what this system will mean if set up without the necessary laws in place is that anyone’s communication can be requested. In truth, the company in its press release is that this service has the capacity to check, to monitor, and of course to follow e-mail. This means that contents of e-mails and online conversations which are meant to be personal rights have been breached.

The information Minister insisted that Nigeria cannot be left behind in monitoring the internet as other democracies. Elbit systems work in the fields of intelligence analysis and cyber defense. What if their mission in Nigeria is basically on intelligence?

Intelligence is not the problem of the people, it is the duty of the government and they need to do it. All the countries mentioned there are enabling laws to protect the citizens, citizens have a right to say to government: “This is my private data, this is my property, lets meet in court”. But in Nigeria we can’t do that because there is no enabling law. There is no free country in the world today that monitors the internet without assuring people of their fundamental human rights. There are people who these laws are put in place for, but this should not threaten the rights of citizens.

Since the media report that the President Jonathan Administration signed a 2-year contract with Elbit Systems worth $40 million, there has been silence from the side of the government. What does that say?

One, they are complacent; they know this is not something they can deny. They are also trying to see how to manage it with the assumptions that citizens will not be able to understand the implication of this. The implication of this is that citizens are heading towards the direction of China, and North Korea, and all the other countries. If this was in place before 2012, it will mean that all the online exchanges of those who participated in the subsidy demonstrations will have had their messages seen by the government. You announce a protest and nobody shows up because they have all been picked up.

Can the Government proceed to censor the internet without discussing the issues surrounding Data Privacy bills for legislative approval?

They shouldn’t, I can’t speak for them, and if I could I would say they can’t, but they shouldn’t. Nigeria is a federal republic.

The National Assembly members have kicked against the over $40m Internet surveillance contract. What role can they play to ensure that a law protecting users and ensuring ethical practices is upheld?

One is, I don’t know how the National Assembly missed the items that were listed in the budget of a National Security Adviser’s office, particularly the NIA budget page 10 of the NSS budget. This is a public document and they had oversight on it so they should have seen it. When they saw internet monitoring system, they should have asked questions such as what of the lawful interception bill in place? What of the data privacy bill that has not been decided upon?

Right now the National Assembly needs to act on those particular bills that discuss these issues because right now Nigeria is facing security issues and everybody wants to be safe. But there is also a tension between security/safety and freedom/privacy. We cannot sacrifice security on the altar of privacy or freedom or human rights, at the same time we cannot sacrifice human rights or privacy or internet freedom on the altar of security. We cannot sacrifice one for the other entirely. The reason why is there is always a need to find balance in these is that governments always make sure they put legislation in place to protect the people. The primary function of governments is to protect citizens, so even when you want to protect people from harm, you don’t harm them.

Your organization, the Paradigm Initiate Nigeria (PIN) has made a FoI Request on the $40M Internet Surveillance Contract by Nigerian Government. Tell us about the request?

We have sent a letter to the presidency asking government two things. We have asked about the details of the contract award process. To know if they followed the due course of awarding such contracts, such as news assessment, the bidding, the tenders board contract and whether they followed due legal process. If the government did award this contract, the question will be why not go through the same rigorous process to ensure that enabling laws are also provided to back the legislation as well as the contract itself.

The second thing is to gain access to more details on the contract itself. When we do and are assured that it clearly does not indicate that internet freedom will suffer, and then we can move on to the simple conversation of the necessary laws.

What will be the next step by your organisation, if you eventually do not get a response. And if you do, what will be the nature of your actions?

We are acting based on the freedom of information act; it is law in Nigeria, which means the government has to respond in 7 days. If they don’t respond in 7 days of course it means that the case will end up in court, and we are willing to do that. This is not one of those issues that we discuss and end there; it is a fundamental shift in freedom of Nigerians. Particularly because the government has said that it wants to multiply internet access and usage in coming years. If this is the case, we want to be sure that citizens’ rights are not unnecessarily infringed.

There is an allegation that the Federal Government has deployed FinFisher FinSpy Command and Control Services in Nigeria to monitor Nigerians, how true?

There is a global report from a reputable institution that says that. The government has not denied, the details are there in the reports. If this is not true, then government should proof the report false. The report is as detailed as the IP address of the server and the countries employing it are listed, Nigeria, Pakistan and other countries.

FinFisher is said to be currently spying through the e-mails, web links, skype calls, chats and files, of Nigerians but targeted at suspected terrorist cells. What if the attempt is to bring about a terrorist free Nigeria?

I think, the government assumes all press releases even from the days of MEND, were released from specific e-mail addresses. Like the bomb-last in 2010 where SMS was involved, and this is a consideration in many countries of the world. The assumption is thus conversations over networks should be monitored across various networks to curb things like terrorism. In this case a court order is requested to check this citizen, backed by law.

There are also various activities by terrorists which have nothing to do with the government. Unfortunately what we haven’t seen happen in Nigeria is intelligence gathering not in terms of gadgets but of humans. Every society will have persons who are more aware than others. In Nigeria, people like this have often become victims. So in the case of aiding to curb atrocities, yes this may be helpful but in reality the internet is not the only place of communication. It is understandable that if a country has 48million or 28% of its population on the internet and over 140million mobile phones, the government can assume that if we monitor mobile phones, if we monitor communications we can curb terrorism. The reality is that the internet is not the only place of communication.

This government had said it would procure a Wise Intelligence Network Harvest Analyzer System, Open Source Internet Monitoring System and Personal Internet Surveillance System at a cost of N9.496 Billion ($61.26 million). What is more profitable? Spend money on surveillance or spend on the Ministry of Information Communication Technology?

Interesting enough those are ideally two different things. One of the things that I have also done is to also look at the technicalities of spending as little as 23million dollars on ICT, which has shown the budget is clearly a security budget. Yes we have security challenges, but there is also the problem that the places where work really needs to be done, are not the places that gets the best of budgets. Because the people there have good intentions but can’t negotiate the way others who get the funds can.

Freedom is a right, but when the issue of national security is involved, do you not agree that to an extent, some level of control should be applied to the online users?

I agree that freedom and security are not the best of friends; I agree that government will need to take steps to ensure that there is no breach of security in the name of internet freedom, but I also agree that government must make sure that internet freedom does not suffer in the name of security. So I would not use the word control with ease, I would use the word intelligence gathering and this does not mean controlling what I can do and what I cannot do on the internet.

This is how it starts, this is how China and North Korea happens, and soon the government will tell you that key words like Boko Haram cannot be used on the internet. Things like this happen in Pakistan. If things like this begin to happen in Nigeria, rights of citizens will be breached as they were during the military where a government sees anyone who goes out to demonstrate against it or any opposition group as an enemy as against the reality that an opposition does not necessarily reflect enmity. This mentality is what I fear.

The fear is having such a mentality mixing up with advanced tools of censoring and monitoring.

Before now, Nigerians have continued to enjoy a free internet space, what will you say led to the sudden rethink to spy on Nigerians?

I won’t exactly say Nigerians have enjoyed internet freedom, a freedom of the net report where Nigeria scored 35 as against 30 which indicates freedom. The reasons were listed as obstacles to access, limits on content and violation of users’ rights. In the year 2011 Nigeria was listed as partly free then improved to 33 in 2012. Nigeria is actually improving in terms of internet freedom. If everything went well we were moving to internet freedom, but with this new policy they will be reductions in freedom.

Keeping ones computer operating system, applications and anti-virus program up to date enable anyone escape from risking government spy?

No definitely not. There are many ways that many governments spy. Like an e-mail can be sent to you through a friends e-mail address and once you open it, it downloads and installs software into your device which at length can make your camera and microphone monitoring devices and once your computer is compromised, you are no longer safe.

Some governments also use hackers to get into your e-mail accounts or Facebook groups. An example is where group accounts have been hacked and requests were made for protests which eventually led to the arrests of these groups who are at times ignorant of these approaches. I saw on e-mail recently where they sent a mail that “One of us is likely to be arrested by the government, check the attachment for details” When you do, you are compromised. Technology has its uses to man but also like water you can also get drowned.

Defending against targeted Cyber threats is actually a new challenge to internet users in Nigeria, what can the people do to defend their rights when they’re violated?

When you are violated in an ideal country, you use a court of law. If Nigerians allow internet censorship in Nigeria without the appropriate laws, when you are violated, you are done for.

Is monitoring the internet same thing as limiting Internet Freedom?

It is part of it, limiting internet freedom could be anything as much as government reacting violently or questioning you or not monitoring but acting in ways that does not guarantee your rights. Limiting can go beyond monitoring. In some countries you cant use words like democracy otherwise you are an enemy of the state. In some countries when you do this you can be behind bars.

No doubt, the freedom of the internet has enabled the people to get Informed, connect, and empower especially those in closed societies like Nigeria. Is the government taking that freedom with spying the online community?

First it takes the freedom away from the people, second it takes away the freedom of even the people in government themselves when they stop being in government. I hope someone tells them this, once you start internet censorship, it can never stop and you can never tell when you will be on the other side, and once you are on the other side, God help you.

The rising growth of Internet in Nigeria pushing it up to 27 per cent of Africa’s total Internet users, with the threats of censorship, do you see that affecting the growth?

When censorship is in place in several countries, people will start using back channels. It’s like I have information that a plane is dangerous I won’t fly. That’s the same thing, if I know that there is danger waiting for me on the internet, I won’t go there.

What would you say to the President Goodluck Jonathan Government regarding online censorship?

Stop Jonathan Stop, before you start what may destroy Nigeria’s exit from the military over the past few years and which of course will affect you when you stop being president.

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