A Nigerian minister and a governor of a northern state recently visited Egypt to get security platforms to monitor people’s calls, text messages and other forms of communication.
According to a security source who spoke with SaharaReporters, the minister and governor made a quick trip to the North African in a bid to find technological ways to trample on people’s freedom of speech.
The governor and the minister are both controversial and have also been in the news lately for the wrong reasons.
“A minister and a governor went to Egypt this week to get a security platform for monitoring calls of citizens. It was a really quick trip,” the source told SaharaReporters.
The clampdown on free speech in Nigeria has become heightened under the President Muhammadu Buhari administration.
Towards the end of 2015, a Petition Bill targeting online and print media as well as regulating social media posts was sponsored in the Senate but it was followed by a public backlash.
In 2019, lawmakers introduced the National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech bill and the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation and other Related Offences bill.
These bills also attracted public critism.
Similarly, conversations about a Nigerian firewall were started during EndSARS protests last year. It was gathered that the EndSARS protests in 2020 made the government more desperate to control the cyberspace.
In a December 2020 report, University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, noted that the Nigeria’s Defence Intelligence Agency had acquired equipment that it can use to spy on its citizens’ calls and text messages.
University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab researches on digital surveillance, security, privacy and accountability.
The report, titled Running in Circles: Uncovering the Clients of Cyber-espionage Firm Circles, said a telecom surveillance company by the name of Circles has been helping state security apparatuses across 25 countries, including Nigeria, to spy on the communications of opposition figures, journalists, and protesters.
The Citizen Lab report also said Circles was affiliated with Tel Aviv-based NSO Group, an Israeli hacker-for-hire company, whose software, Pegasus, has allegedly been used by several governments to spy on dissidents by taking control of their smartphone, its cameras and microphones, and mining the user’s personal data.
Circles, on the other hand, is known for selling systems to exploit Signalling System 7 (SS7) vulnerabilities and claims to have sold the technology to several countries, according to the report. SS7 is a system that allows one mobile network to connect with another.
“Unlike NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, the SS7 mechanism by which Circles’ product reportedly operates does not have an obvious signature on a target’s phone,” explained the report.
The report indicated that Pegasus and Circles products could possibly be integrated.
But there is limited information on how the Circles system integrates with NSO Group’s flagship Pegasus spyware, though a former NSO Group employee told Motherboard that Pegasus had an “awful integration with Circles” and that Circles had “exaggerated their system’s abilities,” according to the report.
According to the report, at least two entities in Nigeria have deployed Circles’ product.
The report stated, “One system may be operated by the same entity as one of the Nigerian customers of the FinFisher spyware that we detected in December 2014.
“The other client appears to be the Nigerian Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), as its firewall IPs are in AS37258, a block of IP addresses registered to “HQ Defence Intelligence Agency Asokoro, Nigeria, Abuja.
“…In Bayelsa State, the governor reportedly used the Circles system to spy on his opponent in an election, as well as his opponent’s wife and aides.
“The investigation also found that the two Circles systems were imported without the proper authorisations from Nigeria’s Office of the National Security Adviser.”
However, a 2016 investigation showed that in 2010, Rotimi Amaechi, the former Governor of Rivers State, was the first government official to make contact with Circles to deliver internet surveillance equipment. The deal was unsuccessful.
Of recent, the Foundation for Investigative Journalism reported how the Nigerian government, through the office of the Presidency, reached out to the Cyberspace Administration of China to discuss plans to build an internet firewall.
This comes as Nigerians boycott the Federal government’s ban on microblogging platform, Twitter to downloading Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and browsing by proxy to maintain a presence on the platform.
According to FIJ’s report, the government officials present at the meeting include Ibrahim Gambari, the Chief of Staff to the President, and Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture.
The internet firewall is a way of having a separate network for the Nigerian Internet that will give the government control over social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
This is similar to the internet filtering system China operates, called the Great Firewall.
The Nigerian government seeks to establish the Nigerian Internet, which it will also control likewise.
The internet firewall will also give the Nigerian government power to block VPN, which many Nigerians are using to access Twitter.