The “Lawful Interception of Communications Regulations” of the Federal Government of Nigeria permits the National Communication Commission (NCC) to tap telephone lines with the goal of monitoring communications in the country. It empowered the Police, State Security Services (SSS) and other security agencies to intercept phone calls, internet, SMS and other electronic communications to filter information that may be useful to security operations.
The regulation is designed to make it easier for the Nigeria intelligence community and law enforcement agencies to prevent terrorists’ attacks in Nigeria and against Nigeria interests abroad.
This regulation was received by Nigerians with two contending and conflicting feelings – that of hope of being safe and that of concern for surrendering their freedom to feel secure. A provision of the regulation states clearly that, “It shall be lawful for any law enforcement agency to intercept communications pursuant to any enactment for the time being in force and these regulations, if the interception relates to the use of a communication service provided by a licensee (network operator) to persons in Nigeria; or the interception relates to the use of a communication service provided by a licensee to a person outside Nigeria”.
The NCC said that any network operator shall not be liable in any criminal proceedings of any nature for any damage, loss, cost or expenditure suffered or to be suffered (whether directly or indirectly) for any act or omission done in good faith in the performance of the duty imposed under these regulations. The agency bears all the responsibility alone but however warn licensees (network operators) that noncompliance with this regulation would attract serious penalty. “If a licensee or any of its officers, managers, chief executive officer, secretary or other similar officers of the licensee or its officers shall be liable to a fine of N5,000,000 and if such an offence is continuing, such a licensee or officer shall be liable to a daily penalty of N500,000,” NCC stated. What this means is that the security agencies can kick off demand as may be considered necessary from any network operator to intercept conversation of any suspect in the course of criminal investigations.
Recently reports have it that due to rising insecurity in northern Nigeria prominent persons in the region, including governors and emirs have started avoiding public mosques. Northern governors and VIPs had come under increased pressure to change their security arrangements following incessant attacks and killings of Muslim faithful by Boko Haram gunmen targeting prominent individuals. On the other hand, investigations have revealed that southern governors and VIPs are becoming more skeptical about attending public functions and churches due to persistent threat emanating from the Niger Delta militants. The spate of insecurity and rising violence in the country culminated in the former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar referring to this period as “a bag time to be born in Nigeria”. Something must be done and urgently too.
With the bombs booming in the desert and the war drums rolling out in the creeks, the Federal Government of Nigeria is not only in-between the devil and the blue sea, but must rise up to its constitutional responsibility which is “the security and welfare of the people”; to maintain law and order and ensure that law abiding citizens and residents go about their legitimate businesses without crime or fear of crime. History is replete with accounts of civilizations that have risen and fallen searching for a balance between citizens’ safety and freedom. The search for a balance that can guarantee security and establish lasting peace and stability in the system and at the same time protect citizens’ rights, freedom and welfare is ongoing. No nation can claim to have gotten the formula. The civilized world is still groping in the dark in this regard.
Perhaps, that accounts for the Federal Government of Nigeria’s expression of bitterness at an Israelis company, Elbit System for the breach of confidentiality in the $40million contract intended to see the Israeli company spy on citizens’ computers and Internet communications under the guise of intelligence gathering and national security. Under the arrangement Elbit Systems is to supply its Wise Intelligence Technology (WiT) system that will help the Federal Government to access all computers and read all email correspondences of citizens in what has been described as, “an infringement on constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression”.
Nigeria is not alone in this race to protect itself and citizens both at home and abroad from terrorists’ attacks or stay on top of its safety and security. Several civilized countries of the world with higher security awareness have adopted similar programme while the search for a universally acceptable best practice continues.
The USA Patriot Act passed by the 107th Congress otherwise known as “Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” allows more electronic surveillance and wiretapping of private citizens. The law although strongly criticized by civil liberties advocates broadened America security agencies’ phone and electronic surveillance authority and made it easier for the government to obtain phone, Internet, and even business records. This legislation which was passed less than two months after the 9/11 is considered to be a vital tool to help prevent terrorism directed at America citizens and American interests.
The America Homeland Security Act passed in 2002 which created the Department of Homeland Security designed to protect critical national infrastructure and focus US resources on protecting the safety of US citizens and respond to emergencies, shielded Internet service providers from customer lawsuits if providers share private subscriber data with law enforcement agencies. The Act empowered law enforcements to obtain information regarding private Internet subscribers without warrant. It also allowed law enforcement agencies to trace the location and identity of an Internet user suspected of posing an “imminent threat to national security interests”, or perpetrating attacks on “protected computers” both government machines and any system used in “interstate commerce or communication”.
In the United Kingdom the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 empowered security agencies to carry out surveillance and investigation; it covers the interception of communications, technological changes such as the growth of the Internet and strong encryption, and gives unlimited powers to security agencies who on the grounds of “national security”, and for the purposes of detecting crime, preventing disorder, public safety, protecting public health, or in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom intercept any information that may be useful to security interests and operations.
Today, Nigeria is a growing global market for the communication industry. Nigeria is also a fast growing social media hotspot. Nigeria is also fast attracting a lot of religious extremists that are accelerating terrorist activities in the country. The number of telephone lines is rising by the day. By 2012 counts, there are 109 million telephone lines in Nigeria. Reports also have it that Nigeria had 48, 366, 176 number of Internet users and 6, 630,200 Facebook fans, and the highest in Africa. Nigeria is said to be the third largest users of twitter globally.
No doubt, the right to privacy, long cherished by Nigerians and guaranteed by Section 37 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, is being compromised by the Lawful Interception of Communications Regulations and more of such legislations that will be unfolding from time to time as terrorists and criminals expand their scope and modus operandi the government device new means and laws to check them and their activities in the country.
Again, there is this fear that political opponents and those considered radicals will be unfairly target for surveillance.
Besides, what is the guarantee that network operators will not intercept private communication or give such information to wrong persons? Many Nigerians have continued to border. There is need for appropriate regulations to ensure that the privacy of Nigerians, their homes, correspondence, telephone conversations, etc are protected from dubious elements in the system who may like to use this method to collect information about innocent people to victimize or target and attack.
The Lawful Interception of Communications Regulations is the Federal Government of Nigeria’s counterterrorism and crime prevention strategy that should be welcomed by all, in view of the emergent trends in insecurity and criminality in the country. Governments at all levels on their part should make sure that this strategy is leak-proof, the procedure well defined and operators trained to protect innocent people from being victims of this good intention.
While we depend on our military and law enforcement to defend and protect us, we also must do our part. We must give a little of our freedom to get more of protection! Safety comes before freedom! One cannot be free in the face of danger!