Business and Economy

Call on NCC to Protect Human Rights and Privacy in Nigeria – Access Now and Paradigm Initiative

We, the undersigned organizations, Access Now, Paradigm Initiative and Avocats Sans Frontières France, call on the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to reverse its latest order directing Telecommunication Companies (Telcos) to disconnect millions of Nigerians from mobile phone and internet services for failing to link their SIM cards to their National Identification Numbers (NIN) and end biometric SIM registration in Nigeria. SIM registration mandates pose a serious threat to human rights, particularly the right to privacy and free expression, and this threat is amplified when biometric data is involved. 

Already, the privacy of millions of people in Nigeria has been put at risk since the government started collecting personal and biometric information for SIM registration more than a decade ago, with millions more at risk of being excluded from many aspects of public life, including access to public services, for failing to provide this information. People in Nigeria should be able to access telecommunication services without having to give up their constitutional right to privacy, and the government must not force citizens to choose one over the other. 

Our concerns are as follows:

Biometric SIM registration mandates create risks that far outweigh the purported benefits. For years, the government has claimed that linking biometric identification to SIM cards is critical to combating kidnapping and terrorism. On the contrary, SIM registration mandates have been found to be inefficient and ineffective in reducing crime and have rather been proven to create a black market for identity theft in other jurisdictions. Indeed, Mexico repealed its SIM registration mandate in 2013 after a policy assessment revealed that it had not helped with the prevention, investigation, and/or prosecution of associated crimes.

The NCC’s decision to pursue this policy heedless of civil societies’ warnings over the years is unjustifiable, and this latest order which seeks to expand the existing database, will endanger even more people. Access Now has previously warned that including biometrics in SIM card registries puts users at risk of privacy violations, data breaches and even identity theft.

Legal safeguards to protect against abuse are absent. Since the passage of the Nigerian Data Protection Act in 2023, there has been a lack of alignment between the existing regulations governing SIM card registration and the current data protection framework. This raises serious concerns about the legal basis for the directive and its compliance with the country’s current data protection framework. 

People in Nigeria heavily rely on mobile phones and SIM cards to participate in society. This disconnection order will exclude millions of people from accessing education, healthcare, commerce, and public amenities, among other things, it limits their rights to access information. Earlier, in 2022, the Nigerian government blocked more than 72 million SIM cards, over a third of all active mobile lines in the country, despite strong opposition from civil society.

Reportedly, 40 million SIM cards have already been blocked in compliance with this latest order. Human Rights organizations including Paradigm Initiative, have contested these orders in the past and have since warned that these disconnections disproportionately impact marginalized people.

The National Identity Number System (NIN) is faced with its own inadequacies and challenges. Since the start of the implementation of the NIN-SIM policy, the capacity of the National Identity Management Commission to effectively coordinate registration and issue NINs has been a major challenge. In 2020, the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) Director General stated that only 38% of Nigerians had a form of identification, with“…women and girls, the less-educated people, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, people with disabilities and people living in rural and remote areas….” being the most affected.

NIN stands to exacerbate the challenges faced by these groups of at-risk people by effectively locking them out of government programs that require NIN for access. As at 2023, only 102 million people, about half of Nigeria’s population, have been issued NINs. Even as this problem persists, and other processes nationwide, including registration for public exams such as UTME,JAMB and WAEC are being negatively impacted by largely inefficient NIN issuance, often due to system and power failures, the NCC continues to pursue this policy, regardless of the harm it perpetuates.

SIM registration mandates breed fertile ground for harmful surveillance and digital authoritarianism. Mandatory SIM card registration undermines anonymity online and deprives people of the ability to communicate and express themselves freely. A registered SIM card gives the ability to access a person’s physical location, data on financial activity, call records and associations, as well as biometric data and personal background data, from a single database. This kind of panoptic surveillance stifles dissent and negatively impacts the protection of  people’s privacy online and offline.

Safeguarding privacy empowers people to participate in civic space, a necessity for building a strong democracy. Our recommendations:The NCC should reverse its latest order, and put an end to the collection of biometrics for SIM card registration. The NCC and NIMC should offer a viable path for reforming the SIM card registration and Digital ID (NIN) frameworks that places human rights at the center of these intersecting frameworks and reduces undue hardship on Nigerians. Telcos should provide more transparency on their processing of biometric data for SIM card registration, including compliance with the Nigerian Data Protection Act 2023. Signed
Access Now
Paradigm Initiative
Avocats Sans Frontières France

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