The Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC) plans to introduce lawful interception (LI), a legally sanctioned official access to private communications, such as telephone calls or e-mail messages in a bid to enhance national security, prevent crime and aid criminal investigations.
Under the initiative, in response to a warrant from a judge, lawful interception is performed simply by applying a 'tap' on the telephone line of the target, making it possible for security agencies in Nigeria to listen to terrorist and criminal cell phone calls and gather communications intelligence on their dark activities.
The commission said it is drawing powers from Section 70 of the Nigerian Communications Act, 2003 and all other powers enabling it in that regard.
It has not however fixed a date for the take-off of the controversial policy which critics said can be used by repressive governments to intimidate the opposition.
A draft guideline posted on the NCC website requires service providers and Internet service providers to implement their networks to explicitly support authorised electronic surveillance.
"These regulations are made to provide a legal and regulatory framework for the lawful interception of communications in Nigeria, the collection and disclosure of intercepted communications. These regulations shall; provide the legal and regulatory framework for the lawful interception of communications in Nigeria and to put into effect the provisions of sections 146 and 147 of the Act; specify the nature and types of communications to be intercepted; prescribe penalties for non-compliance with these regulations; provide a notification procedure to the commission of all warrants issued, amended renewed or cancelled under these regulations; ensure the privacy of subscribers as contained in the Constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria is persevered" the commission said.
According to the NCC, a fine of N5 million awaits a service provider or any of its officers which fails to comply with the provisions of the regulation.
"If such an offence is continuing, such a Licensee or officer shall be liable to a daily default penalty of N 500,000; the commission may revoke the license of the licensee for failure to comply with the regulation. The commission shall give a prior written notice to the licensee of such revocation, not less than (30) days to the withdrawal of the license. In addition the commission may institute an action for non-compliance by way of an injunction or a specific performance or any or such other judicial means of enforcing a duty or obligation imposed on a licensee pursuant to this regulation" it said.
Nigeria Communications Week gathered that though lawful interception has existed since the inception of electronic communications in the form "wiretapping", it has become increasingly necessary now because of the sophistication of criminal enterprises in exploiting emerging communications channels.
The criminal activities pose real challenge to organisations responsible for protecting public safety including the police and courts,
The office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) had in early 2010 summoned all telecomms operators in the country recently and tabled the proposed initiative.
At the meeting were the House of Representative Committee on Communications, telecoms operators as well as the Minister of Information and Communications
The office of the NSA had given all technical data to lawful interception and requested its vendors to contact their consultant for any clarification.
The office has also given a deadline which expired on July 6, 2010 for all technical enquiries following which it is expected to release the implementation schedule for the lawful interception.
Nigeria Communications Week gathered that the Federal Government has directed its consultants to put in place law interception provisions including secure access to protect information and insure network integrity.
It is also expected to be undetectable with secure transport to authorised law enforcement agencies as well as scalable and high availability to accommodate changing network environments.
Lawful interception is expected to help address concerns over ARPU, telecommunications fraud, denial of service attacks, customer satisfaction, and growing security fears - particularly over global terrorist activities.
Chijoke Nwosu, a security consultant applauded the initiative and said that in today's unstable environments, the need for intelligence information is vital in preventing and combating crime. He however warned that high security requirements for LI systems are important to prevent possible manipulation and misuse.
Nodding in agreement, John Iyene Owobokiri, Nigeria CommunicationsWeek in-house legal expert, however said that Lawful interception has a strong legal basis.
According to Owobokiri, there is need to complement the multifaceted regulation of lawful interception with elaborated provisions of law concerning the requirements for the design and development of lawful interception systems.
On the other side of the divide, concerns have been raised as critics said such move would amount to infringement of peoples' privacy.
Amnesty International is concerned by instances where the provision of powerful surveillance and interception capabilities to repressive states are contributing to human rights violations carried out by the police, security and intelligence forces.
Though the organisation said it is not opposed to the transfer of surveillance in general, but such technologies have inherent capabilities that facilitate human rights abuses by security forces in repressive countries.