The Cambridge Analytica scandal is a staggering reveal of the large-scale potential for manipulation of social media users' data. This has alarming implications for data protection across the globe, especially in connection with the potential for its misuse to influence the conduct of national elections. Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm, is said to have used personal information harvested without permission from more than 50 million Facebook profiles, to build a system that could target US voters with personalised political advertisements based on their psychological profiles. This was made known by whistle-blower Christopher Wylie. Wylie is a former Cambridge Analytica contractor who helped build the algorithm to make this possible. The illicit activities of the firm, aided in the use of social media, to impact the United States 2016 general election. Media reports also reveal that Cambridge Analytica and its predecessor, SCL Elections, potentially manipulated the 2015 and 2007 Nigerian general elections using the data of Nigerians. The burning concern is how this could be allowed to happen. And more importantly, what is being done by government and regulators, to safeguard our personal information, to ensure that this never happens again?

Facebook had received repeated warnings about loopholes in its data security policies in recent years, and knew about the Cambridge Analytica data breach since 2015. It however only suspended the firm and the Cambridge university researcher who harvested the user data from Facebook, earlier this month; in April 2018. A former Facebook manager has since warned that hundreds of millions of users are likely to have had their confidential information used by companies in the same way, without their knowledge. Authorities in the UK and the USA, are already taking steps to address this data breach by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently appeared before committees of both houses of the United States Congress. Considering this unfolding scandal, and the past misuse of data belonging to Nigerian citizens, Nigerian regulators should act. But it is uncertain how equipped institutions such as the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) are, to enhance the data protection regime to prevent future misuse of data belonging to Nigerian citizens.

Despite their egregious breaches of data, Nigerian authorities and regulators are unable to hold Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to account for their failures and actions respectively. A major reason for this is the absence of uniform or comprehensive data privacy or protection laws in Nigeria. Presently, the NITDA Guidelines on Data Protection are the only set of regulations that contain detailed provisions on the protection and treatment of personal data. The NITDA Guidelines apply to all organisations that use or deploy information communication technology both in Nigeria and outside Nigeria; provided they process personal data of Nigerian residents. The provisions of the Guidelines are however not mandatory, and only serve as a point of reference.

Nigerian regulators need to follow the examples of the European Union (EU), the United States of America and the People's Republic of China, who have introduced rigorous data protection regulations/legislations for the benefits of their citizens. The EU for instance, has introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), with a strict compliance regime that imposes a fine of 4% of annual global turnover of the affected companies or €20 Million (whichever is greater) for non-compliance. Personal data cannot be transferred to countries outside the European Union unless they guarantee the same level of data protection.

In China, the Cyber Security Law mandates that all data relating to the country's citizens or national security must be held on Chinese servers. Companies are mandated to submit to a review by regulators, before transferring large amounts of personal data abroad. In addition, all personal information and 'important data' held by critical operators and collected in China (a widely defined term encompassing all companies holding data which could harm people's livelihoods if breached) must be stored within the country. This gives the Chinese government substantial control over the data hosted by data centres. Major corporations such as Apple Inc. have had to comply with this requirement, or face expulsion from the Chinese market, as Facebook and Google have similarly experienced.

The Chinese government has also introduced a new national standard on personal information protection, which is set to take effect on May 1, 2018. It contains more onerous requirements than the EU GDPR. For instance, data controllers are required to obtain explicit consent to cover every instance of data collection and sharing. Penalties for violating the Chinese Data Law and regulations are clearly stated, and include the suspension of business activities, closure of businesses, revocation of licences, a fine of RMB1, 000,000 (approximately US$158,825) or a specified jail term.

Evidently, in a situation where the data of Nigerians has been misused and applied to interfere with Nigerian elections, stringent policies such as those adopted by the EU and China, as outlined above, are required to address the abuse or breach. It has become necessary to adopt and enforce local data hosting requirements by businesses, Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) in the country, and to impose a strict compliance regime regarding data protection.

Although NITDA's guidelines are currently undergoing review, the regulator is advised to extend the review process and invite further comments from legal and industry experts. In addition, a national standard on data protection is required beyond NITDA's, as this is the only way to provide for exhaustive changes to the system. A proper legal and regulatory framework in line with international conventions and best practices is required, to guide the operations of ICT companies in Nigeria and to checkmate data misuse and breach. This framework should include the requirement of local shareholding and registration to ensure that local laws would regulate these companies' local entities. Stiff penalties for breaches of data protection laws and regulations should also be provided. Considering the huge revenues made by these data collecting and hosting companies, the imposition of low penalties and fines would not be likely to deter them from breach of the users' data.

The 2019 general elections are on the horizon in Nigeria. Data protection continues to be a burning topic around the world, and we must avoid repeating the same mistakes made in previous elections. The country requires a single and unified Data Protection legislation to protect Nigerians from the misuse or commercialization of their personal information. This will engender the confidence needed to support the explosive growth of ICT, in all spheres of commercial enterprise. 

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.