The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) has said it plans to introduce ‘lawful interception,’ a legally-sanctioned official access to private communications such as telephonic calls, e-mail messages and such other electronic exchange of information like short messaging service (SMS) and multimedia applications. According to the regulatory agency, the ‘authorized intrusion’ is a borderless phenomenon aimed at enhancement of national security, prevention of crime committal and facilitation of criminal investigations.
On the face of it and considering the exponential security challenges in the country, the idea looks quite salutary. As good as the proposal may appear, there are constitutional and socio-cultural implications of such ‘official invasion’ of citizens’ privacy enshrined in the laws of the land and societal mores and norms.
Section 37 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) unambiguously declares: “The privacy of citizens, their homes, correspondence, telephone conversations and telegraphic communications is hereby guaranteed and protected.” It is obvious that the NCC did not take into consideration the provisions of this constitutional stipulation before making its plans. Otherwise it should have known that this constraint will require the usually rigorous process of constitutional amendment or review for the proposal to be accommodated. The law in its present brief inhibits the NCC planned novelty.
There is no doubt that the NCC means well, but it needs to address the statutory hurdles that hamstring its idea. We note of course that there have been a few instances where some courts of competent jurisdiction in the country ordered GSM firms to furnish them with call logs of certain persons involved in litigations of national implications in their courts. This kind of ad hoc intervention is quite understandable, but to now make it a permanent and pervasive feature is not only unconstitutional but an outright exposure of citizens to the whims and caprices of staff of the NCC who could abuse the official privilege.
We cannot because of national security challenges cut our nose to spite our face. The NCC must find another way of intervening in the resolution of the country’s growing insecurity. Tampering with citizens’ privacy in any form cannot be the solution we need in these times. We implore the regulator to evolve acceptable strategies in support of the fight against insecurity in our environment. In any case, the SIM card registration embarked upon by the NCC last year has not yielded the desired result as some dubious subscribers still use unregistered SIM cards to perpetuate their nefarious activities.
The registration initiative by the NCC was to foreclose rampantly fraudulent utilization of GSM lines. That objective as laudable as it was, we regret to point out, remains a mirage. With the SIM registration disastrous experience still trailing us, what is the assurance that this ‘lawful interception’ idea will not amount to a charade? Does the NCC have the requisite human capital to monitor and keep track of the multitudinous users of the services outlined?
What will be the role of the GSM companies in the circumstance considering their adversarial business relationships that espouse uncooperative philosophy? We enjoin the NCC not to bite off more than it can chew. Let it concentrate for now on the SIM card registration and make a success of it before coming up with a phantom programme that undermines the constitution. The clientele of all the GSM companies still have issues with portability, quality of service and rip-off tendencies by these platforms.
This is another critical area that the NCC should look into immediately—and not toy with thoughtless and fluke suggestions. Let the NCC think out of the box on how to be part of the on-going collaborative efforts to check the menace of terrorists and other dissidents threatening our sovereignty. ‘Lawful interception’ of private information in whatever disguise is an abridgement of citizens’ rights.