Dedicated consumers of news would remember the man behind the name Edgar Hoover. He was the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI in the United States of America. Edgar held office for about 33 years! Yes, 33 years; and during this period, America had 6 presidents. His staying power was that he had used the FBI to acquire secret files on several political leaders. Using extra judicial methods, Hoover had files on activists, senators, congressmen, governors and even the presidents. All feared him. This was about 3 decades before the blooming of the new media world. One can only imagine a Hoover in this age. Information is the most powerful asset in the power play equation, both at the private and public end. Anyone with information controls others. Back home, news of the presidency’s ‘illegal’ award of a $40 million Internet surveillance and censorship contract to Israel based Elbit Systems topped the news chart in April. It was rightly of prime concern to the about 48 million Internet users in Nigeria on both mobile and non-mobile platforms. If the contract is allowed, it means the government would know who you ping and what tweet you choose to send. In a country like ours where we literally make the buck stop at the president’s table, it simply means that President Goodluck Jonathan would know who you are sending an email to and what the content is!
The government’s idea reportedly is to use such system for intelligence gathering and analysis and also cyber security. In a twist of event, following the uproar against the policy, the House of Representatives put its feet firmly on the ground and ordered that in a space of three weeks the Committees on Information and Computer Technology, Human Rights, and National Security should conduct an inquiry into the covert contract.
It should be understood that the government’s drive is in tandem with a growing global practice. The means however belies our government’s ability to follow laws it has in itself passed. In one hand, the Public Procurement Act and the Fiscal Responsibility Act are being blatantly breached. On the other end, it seems that the Freedom of Information Act passed in 2011 is about to be withdrawn. The government’s intention deserves to be viewed without prejudice. In 2001, following the September 11 terrorist attack at the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security was setup by president George Bush to look at internal terrorism given that the terrorists were to an extent home grown. This looks like our situation in Nigeria with Boko Haram and kidnapping ravaging the land. Today, all phone calls in the States are reportedly recorded for future or immediate reference. When an individual is identified as a security risk, Homeland usually would have to go get a court order after proving to the court that such person or persons represent (a) security risk. This is the missing link that the three committee bound together by the Nigerian House of Representatives should help Nigerians honourably find.
It is inevitable that we at some point as a developing society, we would have to surrender our digital footprints and activities to the government but what we must be sure of is that it is not abused or misused. The laws need be clear and it should not be an attempt at censorship or regulation for the citizenry. The law must be in apparent tandem with the human rights law especially in the permissible frame of such.
One quick question though – despite the growing dependency on Internet use in Nigeria, are we fully at the turn when Internet surveillance at a heavy cost is a priority. How did the government arrive at this conclusion? One of the concerns Nigerians have always expressed about governance here is the usual non-participatory approach. It’s our sore thumb. It is wrong to make laws or decisions for people without their input, and in this case, it is veiled even though it was mentioned in the 2013 budget at a proposed cost of $61.26 million. By the way, what’s the place of SAT 2 and SAT X launched in Russia in 2011 in this new cyber security drive?
The right to freedom of expression is no longer limited to oral form. The new media form tops expression formats today. In the same vein, intelligence gathering should also move a little away from just word of mouth. Israel also is not a stranger to this form of intelligence gathering especially given the global nature of terrorism.
Our government needs to understand and see the new media as a tool for monitoring its activity. It is the most democratic feedback tool in the world today. Truly, government owes us protection but it must be done within the bracket of existing law. Anything outside this, especially for the social media would amount to censorship and repression. The freedom of expression according to the constitution can only be breached when in the interest of public safety, public protection and a few other instances. In the coming weeks, the committee would do well to study principles outlined under by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the 1999 Nigerian Constitution. Section 39 of the latter and Article 19 of the formers should avail.
No citizen or group in Nigeria wants the government acting as a plural Hoover! The right tool in the wrong hands would be a disaster. News of the World’s case is still fresh in mind – a private group spying on private citizens. While we wait for this debate to end and the action that would follow, our concerns should be about our personal security by unscrupulous private citizens. We are safer when we make sure passwords for financial transactions are different from those we use on social media and for those who use public computers it is important to either browse incognito or in-private or clear both history and cache after browsing. The only way you are completely safe from having intelligence gathered on you online is if you do not go online at all!
On the surface, nothing may look too big to sacrifice for security, but certainly not the freedom of expression; taking this away is tantamount to taking people’s lives.
Sola Fagorusi is a youth development advocate, freelance writer, accomplished debater cum coach. The Obafemi Awolowo University graduate has about 10 years experience in social entrepreneurship which straddles leadership, good governance cum anti-corruption and adolescent reproductive health. The Leap Africa alumnus is also a trained peer educator, a DESPLAY alumnus and co-facilitator. For 2 years now, he has been a technical consultant and lead judge on the Intra-Faith Peace Youth TV Debate Project facilitated by Youngstars Foundation and the British High Commission. To read his full profile, click here
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