A Nigerian newspaper claims to have exposed a controversial new agreement between the country's central government and an Israeli defense electronics company.
Many details remain hazy, and the report is unconfirmed by both the administration and the company. But if the allegations are true, Nigeria is working towards the implementation of a new national intelligence and surveillance system, and concerned citizens worry that their constitutional rights could be at risk.
The report came in the Thursday edition of the Premium Times, which is based in the capital city of Abuja. It followed a Wednesday press release from Elbit Systems (ESLT:TLV) announcing that the company had been awarded a contract worth about $40 million to “supply a country in Africa with the Wise Intelligence Technology (WiT™) System for Intelligence Analysis and Cyber Defense,” adding that the system would be “supplied within two years.”
The Premium Times cited anonymous “multiple and very reliable sources in the administration” of president Goodluck Jonathan as saying that Nigeria was in fact the unnamed country in the press release.
“Our sources say the contract will now help the Jonathan administration access all computers and read all email correspondences of citizens in what is clearly an infringement on constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression,” noted the article.
On Monday, an Elbit spokesperson said that the company was aware of the reports but refused to comment on their accuracy. Nigerian officials did not respond to requests for elucidation.
“The Premium Times story is credible, and they have a reputation for breaking uncomfortable but true stories,” said Gbenga Sesan, founder and executive director of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, an organization that uses information and communications technology (ICT) to bring about social change for Nigerian youths.
“The fact that government has not denied this -- which they're [usually] quick to do -- also lends some credibility to the story,” Sesan added.
While silence reigns on both sides of the alleged deal, debates have raged over the accuracy of the report and the true scope of the capabilities of the WiT™ system. Some argue that the technology could be useful to combat terrorism, corruption and cybercrime; others worry that Abuja could use the system to clamp down on the freedoms of law-abiding citizens.
Those citizens have plenty of reasons to mistrust the central government. Modern Nigeria’s democratic system is still young; the country suffered decades of instability under a series of autocratic military rulers until 1999. Still today, a whopping 94 percent of citizens say corruption is widespread, according to a Gallup poll conducted last year.
Nigeria’s crude oil revenues have helped the sub-Saharan country achieve a GDP of about $235 billion, the second-highest in Africa according to World Bank data. But more than half of the population lives below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate is over 20 percent. Infrastructure, especially in the country's rural areas, is underdeveloped. A pattern of fiscal mismanagement has discouraged international investment and assistance.
The government has failed to invest in the refineries necessary to convert its abundant crude into refined product, so Nigeria actually imports fuel and spends billions of dollars on subsidies so that citizens can purchase it at an affordable price. A parliamentary investigation last year revealed that this import-and-subsidize program is riddled with corruption.
Criticism of the administration is frequent and generally well-tolerated. “There isn’t any concrete or tangible evidence of, censorship, blocking internet material or filtering content,” said Mai Truong, an Africa analyst at Freedom House. "But many internet users in Nigeria believe there's some kind of monitoring going on."
There are plenty of signs the government would prefer to silence dissent. The State Security Service, a national intelligence agency that formed during the period of military rule, has a spotty relationship with the press. Agents have detained and harassed media workers. Just this month, four journalists were arrested for reporting on alleged underhanded practices within the administration.
In this environment, there is great concern that a sophisticated system like WiT™ would only enable governmental abuses directed at the rapidly expanding number of Nigerians online.
Online connectivity has ramped up considerably along with a fast-growing and increasingly young population. About 163 million people live in Nigeria, more than in any other African country, and about 70 percent of them are under the age of 30.
More than 11 million Nigerians had internet access in 2008; only three years later, that number had skyrocketed to 46 million, according to a report from Freedom House. Internet communications are playing an increasingly important role in politics; they are often used by grassroots groups to mobilize young voters or rally support for certain causes.
These rapid changes have surpassed the regulatory capacities of government agencies. Laws to combat online crime and protect content owners are sorely lacking, leaving users and businesses vulnerable. There is no data privacy act. A piece of legislation called the Cyber Security Bill is in the works, but it has stalled in the drafting stages for years.
In the meantime, Nigeria has gained a reputation for spawning internet frauds, which are often called "419 scams" after the Nigerian penal code section addressing these online schemes. They involve criminals who reach out to victims -- typically in Western, English-speaking countries like the United States and the United Kingdom -- via email, dating services, or chat forums.
The stereotype is that of the Nigerian prince seeking assistance for a transfer of funds, but scamming methods have evolved over the past several years and can involve a wide variety of conjured scenarios.
According to data from Utrascan AGI, a global network of experts that investigates online crime, global losses to 419 scams exceed $750 million annually.
“We, as a nation, are not very ready to fight cyber crime,” Nigerian Communication Commission Director Sylvanus Ehikioya said to Premium Times last month. “The necessary infrastructure, in terms of legal and technical infrastructure, has not been put in place yet.”
WiT™, once implemented, might help to improve online security. The system has wide-ranging capabilities; it can make use of everything from satellite imagery to email monitoring to phone conversations.
“A highly advanced end-to-end solution, WiT™ supports every stage of the intelligence process, including the collection of the data from multiple sources, databases and sensors, processing of the information, supporting intelligence personnel in the analysis and evaluation of the information and disseminating the intelligence to the intended recipient,” according to last week’s press release.
Elbit’s own descriptions of WiT™ do not necessarily suggest that the system’s capabilities will endanger the rights of law-abiding citizens. It will be up to the government to employ the technology in a legal and transparent manner.
“From my work in ICT Policy, we know that government has not censored content or prevented access -- except a telecom shutdown in May 2011 -- but various legislative proposals have hinted at possible clampdown,” Sesan said.
Better internet security may well be necessary, but the darkness surrounding the deal with Elbit has left many Nigerians with misgivings. There is a clear risk that the sophisticated system will confer unchecked power to the administration if better regulations are not in place by the time of its alleged implementation.
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