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Nigerian security agencies use Israeli, US technology for forensic surveillance of journalists’ phones

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TECHNOLOGY developed by United States and Israeli firms was acquired by Nigerian security agencies for forensic surveillance of mobile phones of journalists, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED) is sold by an Israeli firm, Cellebrite, while the Forensic Toolkit (FTK) is the product of a US company, AccessData.

CPJ said UFED and FTK were used to extract information from phones and computers.

They are also used in breaking into locked devices and decripting information.

Besides Nigeria, other countries where CPJ reported the use of the devices by security agencies to extract information from journalists’ phones were Ghana and Botswana.

CPJ reported that a forensic search was carried out on the mobile phones and computer of the Regional Editor of Daily Trust in the North-East Uthman Abubakar, after he was arrested by the Nigerian military in Maiduguri, Borno State, in 2019.

Abubakar’s phones and computer were seized while he was held for two days and interrogated about his sources concerning a report he wrote on a military operation. He was eventually released without charges.

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However, during the period the journalist was held, a forensic search was conducted on his phones and computer.

  • Seizure of journalists’ phones, computers, a global phenomenon

CPJ noted that the seizure of journalists’ mobile phones and computers – some of their most important working tools – was a global phenomenon.

“CPJ has documented device seizures around the world, from the United States to Slovakia to Iraq,” the journalists’ rights protection organisation said.

The ICIR  has observed that several Nigerian journalists have had their mobile phones and computers seized by security agencies.

The seizures are mostly reported in situations where journalists use their phones to record videos and pictures which indict or incriminate the security agencies or political office holders.

Several journalists in Nigeria have also had their phones and computers seized when being questioned about their sources by security agents.

A correspondent of Cable, an online newspaper, Chinedu Asadu, told The ICIR that security agents tried to collect his phone after he recorded a political office holder sharing money at a polling unit during an election in Kogi State.

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The security agents, who were working for the politician, wanted the incriminating videos deleted.

CPJ further reported that in Benin Republic, Police copied data from the seized computer of Editor of Nouvelle Economie newspaper Casmir Kpedjo, in April 2019.

CPJ added that when two of its staff were detained in November 2018, intelligent officers collected their phones and computers and boasted about Israeli technology that could extract information from the devices.

UFED and FTK were used to ‘successfully extract and analyse’ thousands of messages, contacts, images, audio and video files, as well as social media accounts and applications, according to an affidavit submitted in court by the Police in Botswana during the prosecution of Digital Editor and Co-founder of Botswana People’s Daily News website, Oratile Dikologang

Dikologang and three others were arrested by the Police in the course of an investigation over Facebook posts. But the journalist, who was detained in April 2020, said he was tortured and questioned over his reports.

According to CPJ, forensic technology designed to extract information from phones and computers was marketed and sold to law enforcement agencies around the world, including those in Nigeria.

  • Nigerian government spends billions on procurement of surveillance devices

From 2014 to 2017, the Nigerian government spent at least N127 billion on ‘surveillance/security equipment,’ according to a 2018 calculation reported by Paradigm Initiative, a Nigeria-based digital rights group.

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“Evidence showed that these purchases were made for political reasons, especially by the authorities in power to monitor their adversaries and political opponents,” the report by Paradigm Initiative said.

Also, checks by The ICIR showed that the Nigerian government budgeted a total of N72.5 billion for procurement of surveillance equipment in the 2021 budget.

The amount includes the sum of N139.4 million allocated to the State Security Service (SSS) for procurement of a surveillance equipment – MG Eyes.

  • Nigerian security agencies have sweeping powers to search and seize phones, computers and other devices

Although the right to privacy is enshrined in Nigeria’s constitution, and law enforcement agents are required to obtain a judicial warrant to search computer systems under Nigeria’s 2015 Cybercrime Law. The 1962 Official Secrets Act provides sweeping powers for security agencies to grant themselves warrants to search and seize all materials considered as evidence, as well as arrest those suspected of committing offenses under the act.

Nigerian security agencies use UFED and FTK to extract information from mobile phones and computers.

CPJ reported that a source in the Nigerian law enforcement sector admitted that security forces used UFED and FTK to retrieve information from devices.

UFED is sold by an Israel-based company Cellebrite, which is owned by the Japan-based SUNCORPORATION, while FTK is sold by US-based AccessData Group.

Cellebrite’s website says the UFED product can extract and decode every ounce of data within digital devices. It added that the equipment is deployed in 150 countries.

Company records stolen by hackers and reported by VICE News in 2017 suggested client relationships with Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.

US federal law enforcement agencies have also invested in the Cellebrite technology, according to media information and procurement information listed online.

A case study published in Cellebrite’s website disclosed that in Nigeria, authorities seized a drug lord’s Samsung phone during his arrest and extracted and analysed data from it using UFED.

In the same vein, The Washington Post reported in May 2019 that Cellebrite’s UFED was used in Myanmar to pull documents from the phones of then jailed Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

Cellebrite said it required clients to uphold the standards of international human rights law or it might terminate their agreements, according to the Washington Post’s report.

Also, Cellebrite’s terms and conditions state that products, software, and services are to be used in a manner that does not violate the rights of any third party.

But the firm did not respond to CPJ’s observations that the use of the product by security agencies would always violate rights of journalists.

AccessData advertises FTK as a tool to identify information on any digital device or system producing, transmitting or storing data, including from web history, emails, instant messages, and social media.

It also boasts capacity to decrypt files, crack passwords, and build a report, all with a single solution.

In 2011, System Trust, a Nigeria-based digital security company, established a sales partnership through DRS, a South Africa-based cybersecurity company, to distribute AccessData technology.

Nigerian officials failed to respond in the CPJ report.

Also, spokesmen of various Nigerian security agencies refused to react to the report when contacted by The ICIR.

Those contacted included spokesman of the Nigerian Army Muhammed Yerima; Nigerian Police Force Public Relations Officer Frank Mba, and spokesman of the SSS Peter Afunanya.

Separate Whatsapp messages sent to the officials were not replied.

However, there have been instances where security agencies targeted mobile phones while looking for ‘incriminating’ materials to use against journalists who are hounded for doing their job.

In 2010 the SSS detained a journalist in Akwa Ibom State Kufre Carter for allegedly leaking a phone conversation that detailed the internal crisis in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic in the state.

Kufre’s lawyer Inibehe Effiong, in a statement, disclosed that a director of operations of the SSS demanded the journalist’s mobile phone to enable the security agency to ‘extract the record and details’ of a purported audio conversation they alleged he had with a medical doctor.

Also, on October 21, 2020, two journalists from The Punch Newspapers Segun Odunayo and Femi Dawodu were assaulted by the Police who also seized their phones while they were covering the #EndSARS protests at the Alausa area in Lagos State.

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