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Nigeria privacy concerns mount over digital ID-SIM link as deadline approaches

Concerns over data put timeline into doubt
Nigeria privacy concerns mount over digital ID-SIM link as deadline approaches

Concerns over privacy and the handling of personal data is putting off Nigerians from registering in the biometric ID system and then linking that to their SIMs, reports the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters.

Nigerians have until 31 October 2021 to link their biometric National Identity Numbers (NINs) to their mobile SIM cards and mobile phone details or face being disconnected. There have already been multiple deadline extensions and as only around 60 million citizens and legal residents of a population of around 207 million have so far enrolled for the NIN. On average, there are between three and four SIMs registered to each NIN.

The World Bank has funded Nigeria’s ID project to the tune of $433 million, yet Nigeria does not yet have data protection laws. Laws were formulated – the NDPR – but never passed by the National Assembly and so are not enforceable.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation has spoken to rights activists and campaigners in Nigeria who say that they themselves will not link their phone numbers to their NINs. They are concerned that people in rural areas could miss the deadline.

Uche Chigbo, acting general manager of the NIMC spoke at even in Port Harcourt last month and countered that “a lot of people in rural areas are registering – more than people in the cities,” reports the Foundation. Chigbo also said that the government is working on grassroots outreach with community and religious leaders and market associations to push out messaging on the scheme.

“NDPR does not have the power to check government agencies that are the greatest harvesters of data,” Khadijah El-Usman, a program officer with Paradigm Initiative, a digital rights group based in Lagos told Thomson Reuters. People do not trust the government with their data, but those who do not link their ID numbers with their phones risk being cut off in less than three months.

December 2020 The government announced on 15 December the plan to link ID numbers with mobile phones. The deadline was initially two weeks later, on 31 December, but soon extended to 9 February 2021. A ban is placed on registering any new SIM cards.

January 2021 Updates were made to the slips that the NIN is printed on when people enroll and an app released to make the phone link easier. (Very few eID cards have been issued. Registrants receive a paper slip and can activate a mobile app with the number.)

However, progress was already very slow. Media found that at a few weeks from the 9 February deadline, up to 95 percent of the 173 agents licensed – public and private – for the enrollment process had not begun any serious work and were still waiting for equipment.

February 2021 Civil rights group coalition Edo Civil Society Organizations (EDOCSO), filed a suit requesting a federal High Court in Edo state capital, Benin, to declare the move as a breach of citizens’ right to privacy as guaranteed by the 1999 constitution.

The deadline was extended to 6 April.

March 2021 Reports emerge of people being forced to pay bribes at registration centers when trying to enroll for a NIN as the SIM deadline neared.

A Nigerian court ordered a further extension beyond 6 April.

April 2021 The government lifts the ban on the activation of new SIM cards as long as they are linked to a NIN.

May 2021 The National Communications Commission updates it identity policy to state that SIM card acquisition and activation should be done based on NIN verification using biometric methods such facial recognition and fingerprints which will be matched against data held by the NIMC. It acknowledges how the whole process will increase the National Identity Management Commission’s (NIMC) databases.

July 2021 Number of NIN registrations reaches almost 60 million, the boost being linked to the SIM requirements.

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