No to monitoring of communications of Nigerians! | #government | #hacking | #cyberattack

Kudos to Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project better known as SERAP for once again standing up to protect the rights of Nigerians and using the instrumentality of public interest litigation to promote good governance. The group last Friday, October 15, 2021 was in court for the umpteenth time to call out the Federal Government for attempting to monitor the calls, text messages, WhatsApp and other social media accounts of Nigerians.

According to news reports, SERAP has filed a lawsuit against the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), asking the court to “declare illegal and unconstitutional the plan by the administration to track, intercept and monitor WhatsApp messages, phone calls, and text messages of Nigerians and other people, as it severely threatens and violates the right to the preservation of privacy.” The suit reportedly followed the proposal in the Supplementary Appropriation Act signed in July 2021 to spend N4.87bn to monitor private calls and messages. The amount is part of the N895.8bn supplementary budget approved by the National Assembly.

In the suit number FHC/ABJ/CS/1240/2021 filed last Friday at the Federal High Court in Abuja, SERAP is seeking “an order of perpetual injunction restraining President Buhari and any other authority, persons or group of persons from unlawfully monitoring the WhatsApp messages, phone calls and text messages of Nigerians and other people.”

SERAP is also seeking “a declaration that any monitoring of WhatsApp messages, phone calls and text messages is oppressive and draconian, as it threatens and violates sections 37 and 39 of Nigerian Constitution 1999 [as amended]; Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; and Articles 17 and 19 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Nigeria is a state party.”

The Civil Society Organisation argued that, “The plan to monitor WhatsApp messages, phone calls and text messages is an arbitrary interference by the administration into respect for family and private life, the home, and correspondence. It also fails to meet the requirements of legality, necessity, and proportionality. SERAP was quoted as saying that “The Buhari administration has legal obligations to protect Nigerians and other people against arbitrary interference and violations of their human rights. Monitoring of WhatsApp messages, phone calls and text messages would grant free rein to government agencies to conduct mass surveillance of communications of people. The mere threat of mass surveillance, even when secret, coupled with the lack of remedy, can constitute an interference with human rights, including the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”

The group went on to say that “Privacy and expression are intertwined in the digital age, with online privacy serving as a gateway to secure exercise of the freedom of opinion and expression. Therefore, targets of surveillance would suffer interference with their rights to privacy and freedom of opinion and expression whether the effort to monitor is successful or not.” Joined in the suit as Respondents are the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Mr Abubakar Malami, SAN, and Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Mrs Zainab Ahmed. No date has been fixed for the hearing of the suit.

I am very shocked at this attempt to conduct mass surveillance on Nigerians by the Federal Government. It is even more preposterous that the National Assembly which is comprised of the representatives of the people did not see anything wrong with this anti-people project and went ahead to approve the princely sum of N4.87bn for this surveillance project. I am also amazed that this issue which happened three months ago did not generate national outrage. Could this be because Nigerians are not aware of the implications of this exercise by the federal government?

Apart from the legal and human rights implications raised by SERAP in its lawsuit which I fully endorse, there is the probability of those saddled with this surveillance exercise abusing their powers. Take for instance if in the course of the monitoring of the calls and messages of Nigerians those saddled with the exercise decide to weaponise some of the information they stumble on. By this, assuming in the course of the surveillance, it was now discovered that a Politically Exposed Person has a closely kept secret such as medical record, involvement in drug consumption, extra-marital affairs or any information which is not of a criminal nature but nonetheless a closely guarded personal or family secret, couldn’t such government officers or security agencies use such information to blackmail, extort and corruptly enrich or demonise the victim?

I am not unmindful of the fact that the law is on the side of security agencies or law enforcement agents to breach the privacy of a criminal suspect. For instance, if the police or men of the Department of State Security are on the trail of a criminal gang and some of the foot soldiers were arrested, under interrogation contact details of the fleeing members can be extracted from the arrested suspects in order to assist them in apprehending the other suspects not yet in their custody. The police or the DSS can tap into the calls of such suspects and even hack into their social media accounts in the course of an investigation. What I am objecting to is mass surveillance of everyone in the country coupled with the fear of abuse by those vested with such powers.

Nigeria is not a police state or Gestapo state where the observance of human rights record is in breach. This power in the hands of our law enforcement agencies can lead to cyber-stalking and cyber-bullying. 2023 General Election is around the corner, with mass surveillance being currently done in Nigeria, aspirants and candidates of opposing political parties could be targeted for smear campaign given the secrets of such candidates that may be in the hands of government security agents. It is a well-known fact that election in Nigeria is war with and without guns as aspirants and candidates engage in all manner of underhand dealings, sharp practices and malpractices in order to outwit their political opponents.

I hope that SERAP will get the court to invalidate this move by the federal government, however, as the saying goes, the wheel of justice grinds very slowly, though surely. Justice delayed is also said to be justice denied. Pending when the courts will rule one way or the other on this suit, let the Nigerian media and CSOs rise up to demand the stoppage of this invasion of our privacy. It is unethical, inhuman and illegal.

As individuals, now that we know that ‘Big Brother Nigeria’ may be watching our dirty secrets, it behoves us to use our social media and communication gadgets responsibly. As the saying goes, it is better to be safe than to be sorry. It is a known fact that it is not only government that can hack or tap into our private conversations. There are a lot of ruthless hackers who are on the prowl on a daily basis and whose stock in trade is to scam, defraud, blackmail, steal identity or demand for ransomware. What happened to Waka Queen, Salawa Abeni and hip-hop diva, Tiwa Savage recently as well as the Colonial Pipeline in USA where alleged Russia hackers hacked into the database of the company and demanded payment of ransomware early this year should serve as a lesson for all. Once again, let’s learn to use social media responsibly. In truth, many of our secrets are indeed, ‘open secrets’.

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