Eavesdropping, censorship and the voyeuristic state, By Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú | #socialmedia


…the Buhari administration is not interested in these technologies to fight crime. Right now, the mobile telephony operators can help them catch terrorists and bandits using various cell phones to communicate and ask for ransom. Instead of facing the real threats, they are afraid of their shadows, they are seeking these tools to suppress dissent and punish anyone who disagrees with them and their policies. 

Letting words roll off the tongue without having to second guess one’s thoughts is one of the greatest gifts of being human. The Nigerian Constitution guarantees our rights to say what we want without censorship or restraint, as long as it is not injurious to anyone or group. Does freedom of speech apply online if the government actively seeks to monitor speech? Has the right of individuals to express themselves freely become smudged? The answer lies in the latest misadventure of the Buhari administration. In the supplementary budget approved by the National Assembly last week, the executive asked the legislators for N4.8 billion, for the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) to monitor phone lines and social media communications, including WhatsApp messages, calls, text messages. Of the N4.8 billion, N1.93 billion is for “WhatsApp Intercept Solution” and N2.93 billion for “Thuraya Interception Solution” – these are communications system used for monitoring voice calls, text messages and data traffic. The “Intercept Solution” is the kind the Saudis used to monitor Jamal Kashoggi’s messages, itineraries and online footprints, until he was butchered in their embassy in Turkey.

As long as people have evolved language and personal conversations, those who eavesdrop have tried to listen in. Our people say, “the wall have ears”. They say so because before the phone, before the internet and the social media platforms it birthed, when important matters were discussed in homes, people listened in through the eaves. Literally they slither in, within the “eaves­drop”, to hear what was being said. Technology has made it even more convenient with the telephone; just tap the wires. Why talk if someone is eavesdropping on your conversation? What the government is trying to do is to mute our voices and create a police state. “Intercept Solution” is designed to invade our privacy interests. It is a shame that a government that cannot protect us from terrorism, banditry, armed robbery, is seeking to prevent us from talking about and showcasing their ineptitude to the world.

By this approval, the government will acquire the technology to overhear and record all conversations of their targets and persons they are interested in. They will gain access to homes and offices and will have access to information that is extremely private in nature. We know how a Nigerian wields power without a just judicial system to rein him in.

No doubt, the government has the right to use electronic surveillance to investigate crime. However, we know this government, the Buhari administration is not interested in these technologies to fight crime. Right now, the mobile telephony operators can help them catch terrorists and bandits using various cell phones to communicate and ask for ransom. Instead of facing the real threats, they are afraid of their shadows, they are seeking these tools to suppress dissent and punish anyone who disagrees with them and their policies. With electronic surveillance, the thin line between privacy interests and effectual law enforcement is effectively blurred. It is totally shameful that we have an unquestioning, pliant National Assembly membership who are mere agents of the Presidency. They really do not care what we think. By this approval, the government will acquire the technology to overhear and record all conversations of their targets and persons they are interested in. They will gain access to homes and offices and will have access to information that is extremely private in nature. We know how a Nigerian wields power without a just judicial system to rein him in. Left to the discretion of officials, the potential for clandestine use, abuse and elimination of personal privacy is huge!

I am worried that this government is oblivious of the fact that social media has helped to keep Nigerians sane amidst buffetting winds of economic incapacitation, insecurity, and hopelessness. On the positive side, it has become the refuge for many, the village square, a place to keep up with news, gossip, to do business, and a sanctuary where people can say their minds. Government does not have to regulate Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. These platforms are making conscious effort to regulate content posted on their platforms. Users of these platforms are empowered to report abuse. That is why President Buhari was hit. He violated the rules and he was reported. Does being a President hold you to a different standard on social media? No! It is up to a platform’s algorithms to control what ideas or speech are censored. What Nigeria is trying to do is to stifle dissent and control the narrative by creating polices that impose on our rights and destroy positive user experience on platforms they did not create.

Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú a farmer, youth advocate and political analyst writes this weekly column, “Bamidele Upfront” for PREMIUM TIMES. Follow me on Twitter @olufunmilayo

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