Data of 93 million Nigerian voters at risk as election looms

At Saturday's poll, Nigerians will have biometric details checked against those held on record

Voters are being asked to hand over swathes of personal data to register to vote. Bloomberg
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Africa's biggest electorate votes on Saturday in a poll that experts fear could unleash a mass breach of privacy as Nigerians relinquish personal data to cast their vote.

From facial recognition to fingerprints, ID cards and mobile numbers, few personal details may stay private given the many identity checks being carried out by electoral officers in Nigeria.

At the heart of the new system is a nationwide drive to stamp out the sort of rampant electoral fraud that critics say has long distorted democracy in Africa's most populous country.

But privacy experts point to the flipside, fearing that tens of millions of Nigerians instead risk exposure to fraudsters, identity theft or state surveillance under the new system.

“Facial recognition system by design is a tool of mass surveillance … that takes scraps from other databases like social media and government without their knowledge and consent,” Matt Mahmoudi, a researcher on artificial intelligence and human rights at Amnesty International, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The government could for example use biometric records from the electoral database to identify and target activists and campaigners during protests following an unpopular election result, he added.

Rotimi Oyekanmi, a spokesman for the Independent National Electoral Commission, which runs the election, said the agency does not share “information about registered voters to political parties or anyone”.

“We protect such data jealously,” he said, urging Nigerians to contact police if they suspect identity theft or election rigging.

Africa's biggest election

An official marks boxes of voting materials in Yola. Reuters

More than 93 million Nigerians go to the polls on Saturday in a first round of votes in Africa's largest democracy. They will choose a president in a keenly contested race that observers say has kept the ruling and opposition candidates on their toes.

Nigeria's voter register — listing tens of millions of names, addresses, dates of birth, job details, phone numbers, and biometrics — is the largest such database in Africa, according to INEC.

On Saturday, electoral officials will collect another round of face and fingerprint data from voters massing at tens of thousands of polling stations, with only those whose identities match the result from previous biometric records gathered by the INEC since 2010 eligible to take part.

It is the first time the two-stage system has been tried nationwide in Nigeria, which — along with Kenya, Ghana and Sierra Leone — has embraced technology to tackle widespread electoral malpractice.

Calls from party operatives

A man chants political slogans outside Labour Party candidate Peter Obi's offices in Abuja. AFP

Yet even before the big vote, alarm bells were ringing and democracy advocates were urging voters to be on their guard.

Illustrator Babajide Briggs was at dinner with friends in Lagos on Monday when he picked up an unknown number on the first ring of his mobile.

The caller ran through an ID check — confirming Ms Briggs by name, polling place and city location — then identified herself as a campaigner for the ruling All Progressives Congress party.

Ms Briggs said she urged him to vote for the party's presidential candidate, even offering a free hotel room and courtesy transport if he preferred to stay closer to his polling station on the eve of the election.

“She knew my name on my voter's card, where I would vote. How did she get that personal information?” he asked.

Independent election observers say hundreds of voters have similarly received targeted phone calls from party operatives in the run-up to the Feb 25 vote.

A spokesman for the ruling APC said the party had nothing to do with any attempt to bribe or call voters and urged Nigerians not to divulge their personal details to anyone on the phone.

“In this election season, there are a lot of mischief makers out there doing whatever they want to do, but such calls are not efforts from the party,” Felix Morka told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Digital rights advocates say governments often use the cloak of “free and fair elections” to fish for shoals of data — aided by facial ID and fingerprinting in Nigeria — without first establishing the efficacy of the technology.

“Do they need all these methods of biometric registrations to monitor electoral fraud? … Probably no … It's incumbent on authorities to come forward and explain on what basis facial recognition is the right course of action,” said Mr Mahmoudi.

ID overstep

The train to Kaduna from the capital has been suspended because of the risk of attacks and kidnappings in the run up to the poll. AFP

Nigerian officials routinely cross-check documents in myriad aspect of daily life, from banks to benefits, and privacy experts say a data protection bill is long overdue.

Amnesty's Mr Mahmoudi said that without such a law citizens cannot seek “redress and remedy” if their data is compromised.

This makes prevention and self-protection key, said Samson Itodo, founder of youth advocacy group YIAGA Africa.

“Often, I see people sharing photos of their voter ID on social media without blurring any of their personal information on it. Politicians can exploit that,” he said.

The group has been educating voters at town halls, urging people not to sell their voter ID in exchange for cash to politicians, who could harvest and abuse such records.

But a flippancy towards ID protection may go right to the top, with privacy concerns stretching even to the vast voter records collected by INEC.

Last year the commission said it had been a target of both physical and cyber attacks, with 50 security incidents involving sensitive electoral materials it is supposed to safeguard.

Critics say the attacks are no surprise — but worry that a problem affecting 93 million people remains unfixed.

“It should be expected that people will attempt to breach a system with a database, but we want to know what safeguards exist … that is what is at the heart of this,” said Kolawole Oluwadare, deputy director of Nigerian rights group the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project.

Updated: February 24, 2023, 1:36 PM