Data Collection and Citizen Protection

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The National Assembly should protect the public from actions that could undermine the democratic essence

The federal government has lately been hiding under the current insecurity to undertake multiple data collection and privacy infringement initiatives. Some of the pertinent questions that this regime of indiscriminate data collection has thrown up include: where should we draw the line between the responsibility for national security and the right of individual citizens to the privacy of their personal data and communications? Are there national legislations to protect innocent citizens from the several rogue elements that are in the system? Could a future autocracy feed on this trove of private data to curtail individual freedom for political purposes? In what remote locations are the backup servers of these data being stored and to what end?

From the National Population Commission (NPC) to the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and several other federal agencies, Nigerians are being asked for their biometric data for almost every service. Yet, what the government fails to understand is that biometrics is based on individual characteristics of the subject and is not necessary to be replicated or duplicated for authenticity. There are no two persons with the same set of fingerprints, palm prints, or retina in the world. Since biometrics is therefore as individual as the DNA of a person, capturing same in a multiplicity of places in what is clearly a huge racket has dire implications for the security of citizens.

In a world where even the most powerful and technologically advanced nations have reasons to be apprehensive about cyber security, Nigerians cannot afford to sit by and hope that their interests in this matter are protected. In Israel, Shinbet and Mossad wanted to hide under the Covid-19 emergency to collect and domicile personal health and private data of citizens. A spate of litigations is ongoing in various courts which have halted the gimmick in favour of the sanctity of individual privacy of citizens. In Nigeria, despite the National Identity Number (NIN), Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) verification, Bank Verification Number (BVN), an arm of intelligence still seeks to acquire gadgets to access private social media communications.

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With hardly any interrogation, Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami has introduced a torrent of data mining and harvesting initiatives. Yet, no one seems to care about these processes under the supervision of someone with a controversial past and questionable associations. Besides, it ought to concern the public that the more we introduce these intrusive data collection initiatives, criminal and illicit enterprises like cybercrimes have been on the increase. In some of the officially related financial crimes, the culprits are persons whose identity is not hidden and does not require complex data searching to be found.

It is common knowledge that our security agencies routinely snoop on the private phone conversations and communications of Nigerians. Even where it has been proven that the privacy of individuals has been violated, the law seems to overlook the infringement. Yet, the most elementary requirement of a democratic and free society is that the privacy of individual citizens remains a sacred area except in cases of criminal investigation. Even then, the relevant security agencies must obtain legal clearance to seek access to the private communications of individual suspects.

Routine massive acquisition of data and information on citizens is the favourite strategy of totalitarian regimes. When a democracy becomes incrementally subject to authoritarian gimmicks, repression in the hands of reckless politicians is what usually follows. The National Assembly therefore has a responsibility to protect the public from executive actions that could undermine the democratic essence of society and circumscribe the liberty of citizens.

Thisday

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