• Monday, July 22, 2024
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NIMC needs to admit that data leak happened and make sure it does not happen again – Gbenga Sesan

NIMC needs to admit that data leak happened and make sure it does not happen again – Gbenga Sesan

In the past 14 years, Gbenga Sesan, executive director of Paradigm Initiative, has used his pan-African social enterprise platform to campaign for the digital rights and inclusion of Nigerians and Africans. One of his efforts has led to the exposure of data leakage at the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), with a National Identity Number (NIN) slip being sold for N100. In this interview in his Lagos office, Sesan spoke to Obinna Emelike on the rationale for exposing the NIMC lapses, why data is not safe, the implication of the situation, issues on the breach of privacy of Nigerians, way forward, among others. Excerpts:

With the NIN slips’ sales, how safe is our data and other sensitive information in Nigeria?

Our data in Nigeria is not safe and that we have established. It is not safe not because we do not have the certification. The National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) claims they have certifications and, of course, they do. But unfortunately, more than once, in March and recently and many others that I can’t say much about now, but we know there are many others and in due season we will release more information.

I have had access to this same information that is secure. It is one thing for something to be secure and another thing for the person who is in charge of the security to make sure that the security is not breached and that when it is breached, they do something about it, which is where the problem is.

When the breach happened NIMC kept denying it. They still went on some TV stations denying it and unfortunately, one of the journalists I was supposed to talk to at some point, said to me in confidence that NIMC and its boss said no, don’t talk to that guy.

How is data safeguarded elsewhere?

We know that data is not safe here, but how is it done elsewhere? There is no 100 percent safe data anywhere in the world, nowhere. But once you find out that there is a leak, you trace the source of that leak, you punish the person and make it difficult for them to do it again. Otherwise, there will be impunity because the whole idea of impunity is that I can get away with it. So, this is where we have a problem, it is not because someone had access to the data. Fine, we deliberately bought data for the minister and data for the boss of the commission just to demonstrate that something is wrong. Mine is also available for sale. But the question is what are we going to do about it this time? Are you going to make sure you find out the culprits? They promised investigations, many investigations have been promised in the past, yet without fulfilling them. Even when an airplane crashes, they will promise not to leave no stone unturned, but unfortunately, the stones will be turned and turned and everybody will forget.

So, that is where the real problem is, there is no punishment when there is a leak.

But why will the NIN slip of a president or minister go as low as N100. Does it mean the sellers attach no value to it?

No; they have 100 million slips and if they sell each at N100, that runs into N10 billion. So, it is a unit of scale and they are making money from it. They will sell multiple times and if the NIN slips are expensive, nobody will buy them. The NIMC has claimed that the websites that sold the NIN slips are fake. Is that defence justifiable? Yah, NIMC said the websites were not licenced by them and that is true. But it also begs a question. How did the websites get your information? It is through someone you licenced. So, which of your licencees gave them the information or who in your office illegally did it? That is the question we want them to answer and if they don’t answer it, we are not stopping.

Having established that data is not secure, what is the way forward?

The way forward for me is, first, NIMC needs to stop behaving like Ostrich and stop hiding its head in the sand. Yes, the leak happened, admit it. The question now is how to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We have highlighted three things on this. The first is; who did it. Find out and you can know because digital footprint is available. The second is to punish the culprits properly and the third is to let all stakeholders agree on how we can make it costly and impossible for anyone to commit that crime again and assure Nigerians that their data is safe and secure.

How far have you gone in your campaign of getting NIMC to account for the data leakage and breach of the privacy of Nigerians?

There are various aspects to the campaign. One is that we have been having meetings. We have worked with NIMC before to popularise information that they need to do that, we work with the Data Protection Commission and we work with everybody. Tomorrow (July 2nd), we are going to have a meeting with the Minister of Interior, who is in charge of NIMC, if they don’t cancel it.

Basically, the whole idea of this consultation is to say, this is the problem and this is the way forward. The way forward is simple. Find out and publish these findings and punish the culprits to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Apart from this, we have also talked to the National Assembly and the House of Representatives has called for a probe, while the Senate is still investigating to do the same thing. The Ministry of Digital Economy said that the Data Protection Commission is also investigating. Apart from all these, we are in court with NIMC.

We cannot just sue a government agency like that without telling them, we have told them. That expires this week and we will go to the next stage because they haven’t responded yet. We filed the papers.

Apart from that, we are also working with our partners to make sure that everyone who needs to know is aware of this problem because what happened in the past is that such issues are overlooked as if nothing happened and it dies down. But that is not going to work this time.

Now that the case is in court, do you trust the judiciary for fair judgment?

We will show the judge that his NIMC was being sold for N100 and let the judge make a decision. If the judge’s slip is sold for N100 and he rules against us, then the situation is going to get out of hand.

What are your expectations from the court?

The probe should be completed, the people who are responsible inside and outside NIMC for these leaks and sales must be publicly published and Nigerians should be given undisputable assurance of the security of their data. That is all; we are not asking to be given anything.

Why do we lack central database in Nigeria?

The answer is simple; greed, corruption and ego. Every agency wants to own its data. NIMC is the custodian and the government has been saying that. NIMC is from the Act of 2007. So, they have been around for 14 years and that was when the Paradigm Initiative started also. But since then, we have gone regional while NIMC is still struggling. Sadly, because of politics, no president has had the backbone to say, do it right or I will back this agency to do it right. Maybe, this president will do it right because at least his “political daughter”, who used to manage APC data, is the person he has appointed to manage Nigeria’s data. Maybe, he will now give her the support that she needs to make sure that NIMC is truly a coordinating institution.

But there is no reason that for a driver’s license, you have to apply with something else and for an international passport, you have to apply with something else.

The international passport has collected the National Identity Number (NIN) and now they have printed NIN publicly on the passport, which is not supposed to be. This is where the challenge is.

Do you think that the present administration has the political will to address the issue?

Well, the joke is on them if they don’t because they are failing on other fronts. If they fail on this one too, shame on them, especially because the APC data collector is now the one in charge of Nigeria’s data.

This government has the opportunity to prove people wrong and better the lots of Nigerians. It will be a shame if this opportunity to do the right thing is lost.

Why is it difficult to track crimes committed with phones despite the available technology now?

We are not serious about tracking things. Isa Pantami, former minister of Communication and Digital Economy, said give me your biometrics and I will stop criminals from kidnapping you. Has he not paid ransom recently himself and announced it on Twitter; the same Twitter he banned. So, this is the challenge, they are not serious about this. This is also one of the reasons we should take the current data leak seriously. Who knows who has this data already and who knows which of them has bought the NIN slip of an important person and used it to buy a SIM card to create a number in their name to contact people? So, it is incompetence and corruption, not technology.

Incompetence and corruption are two dangerous twins. If you are incompetent and not corrupt, at least you can train yourself to become better. If you are corrupt but competent, you will steal and still work. But when you are incompetent and corrupt, it is game over.

Why are other related agencies not working together in checking and synchronising data?

That is the problem. If it is a digital identity, each time someone uses it, it leaves an imprint on it and it continues like that. We can do the same for our data so that anytime your data is used, there is a signature on it and details on who accessed it, who used it and what they use it for. These are the kind of conversations we need to have to be able to think of how to protect ourselves and be the best at what we do.

No doubt, your work exposes you to danger. Has there been a threat to your life or company?

We have been doing this work for a while. There have been various threats, leave the country, these people are wicked and others. But being a Nigerian is already being a threatened person. Doing this work means we already have threats and it is not just the courage to do what is right, but also the fact that I have one passport and it is a Nigerian passport. So, what is too much for me to do for Nigeria especially as I have sworn to do it, not an oath of office, but as my career? To be honest, it is in everyone’s interest that we do the right thing including those who people think may want to harm us. They know the truth that this is in their interest. In 2013 when we told Colonel Dasuki, in the NSS office then, to respect the rights of the citizens, he did not listen. Many years later, he faced the same thing. He was arrested, jailed and was asking for his own right.

This is where the problem is and I think to be honest many times we exaggerate the power of the few over the power of many. There are more people in Nigeria who want to do right than wrong.

Can you talk a little about the Paradigm Initiative?

Paradigm Initiative started in 2007. We are a regional non-profit organisation. We started as a Nigerian organisation, now we are regional with offices in Cameroon, Senegal, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Nigeria.

We focus on two things; digital rights and digital inclusion. Digital inclusion is to make sure that every young person who doesn’t have opportunities is given a chance to learn digital tools to improve their lives.

On the other hand, digital rights, which is part of the work we are doing now around digital protection, is to make sure that government policies support us in the digital age. All these things about shutting down the internet, violating people’s rights and arresting them because they said things online, we have no business with that. As a country and continent, we should focus on making sure that we don’t miss the 4th industrial revolution because we have missed many opportunities before now. But we must not miss this one. So, that is why the Paradigm Initiative does what we do across all the countries we operate in.

What are some of your accomplishments?

We drafted the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill, though it was sponsored by someone. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate, but President Buhari refused to sign and we took him to task on it. We did the same thing in Gambia for Yahya Jammeh, the dictator and in Senegal ahead of the internet shutdown in January; we released a movie in December and trained our people to prepare them ahead.