Sareeta Amrute, Kamela Heyward-Rotimi
In the July—August issue, Kamela Heyward-Rotimi introduced us to the complications surrounding the Yahoo-Yahoo or 419 scams in Nigeria. In this second installment of the two-part interview, Heyward-Rotimi turns to the efforts big companies go to surveil these scams. Through her account, we'll hear how the treatment of the scams as acts of criminality elide a much deeper history of coloniality.
Sareeta Amrute: What has the role of big tech companies been in filtering out and therefore surveilling these efforts? What do Yahoo-Yahoo boys and girls think about this surveillance and the failure of their efforts to work around these filters?
Kamela Heyward-Rotimi: Since my study focuses on the low-level, everyday Yahoo boys and girls and the communities they live in, I will focus on their surveillance experiences on platforms owned and operated by big tech companies. It is imperative to point out the different surveillance experiences of, on the one hand, the Yahoo boys and girls who accept pointed surveillance as the hazard of their extralegal activity, and, on the other, Nigerians who are not involved in Yahoo-Yahoo who are surveilled and assumed to be engaged in fraudulent activity. One of the defining experiences of Nigerians in virtual spaces is surveillance systems that surveil and block access to Nigerian IPs. It is a source of frustration, since Nigerians are punished for an activity that they disagree with and that harms them. There is also a distinction between the surveillance of Yahoo syndicates and low-level Yahoo boys and girls. Yahoo operations target big tech companies with surveillance programs designed to protect against breaches of company security, money, and goods. Low-level Yahoo boys and girls are primarily on social media platforms—free email and dating-site apps—where they target individuals and do unorganized phishing. Also known as "the game," Yahoo boys and girls recognize that the tech companies do not want their customers' information stolen or their customers to enter into fraudulent transactions, so they accept the changing surveillance systems, which they then work around.
Low-level Yahoo boys and girls realize that because of their extralegal activities, Nigerians as a whole are profiled as potential scammers, targeted for restricted or blocked access and watched on these platforms. Likewise, Nigerians are very aware of the cybersurveillance and blocks they encounter due to Yahoo scams when they sign on with their Nigerian IPs. This breeds a contentious relationship between Nigerian community members and Yahoo boys and girls. Community members are disappointed and angry with low-level Yahoo boys and girls, while community elders still acknowledge their actions as youthful, misdirected responses to high youth unemployment rates. Though the activities are viewed as unrespectable and harmful to Nigeria and Nigerians, the assumption is that many of the youth would not become involved in Yahoo-Yahoo if they had other choices. Many low-level Yahoo boys and girls stop doing the scams once they find a job.
Surveillance of everyday efforts to access websites and professional transactions as well as blocked access to websites due to the surveillance of Nigerian IPs is an ordinary citizen's experience. According to Nigerian teachers, bankers, shop owners, undergraduate students, and professors, blocked entry to various commercial websites and even noncommercial websites is a daily occurrence. Nigerian IPs and presumed Nigerian owners are being singled out as potential scammers when scammers are in every part of the globe, and not all are Nigerian. It is not uncommon for Nigerians to ask why countries like the U.S. and Britain do not have their IPs blocked, since scams originating from these countries surpass those from Nigeria. Being a Nigerian online consumer and attempting to access the Internet through a Nigerian IP creates significant stress and indignity for many. With the mere question, "Do you think Yahoo-Yahoo fraudulent activities have impacted the image of Nigerians?" stories unfurl of Nigerians in Nigeria being denied universal Internet access in virtual spaces supposedly void of geographical and racial boundaries. Though there are many accounts of restricted access to foreign, mostly Western websites, some Nigerians are still in disbelief that foreign companies would stereotype Nigerian visitors and block Nigerian IPs.
Attempting to access the Internet through a Nigerian IP creates significant stress and indignity for many.
The following two accounts illustrate frustrated Web accessibility due to surveillance. Bola, a history student in her third year of undergraduate studies, had a difficult time convincing her mother that restricted access abruptly stopped many of her attempts to "window-shop" on websites owned by U.S.-based companies. She explained that her mother did not believe her account: "She could not understand why I could not purchase an item from company Z. I told my mother just how it happened. I was like, 'What is this?' They were like, 'Sorry, content is not available for this area.' What they meant is, 'Sorry, content is not available for Nigerians.' I was like, 'Fine.' Because the money is much [the items were too expensive], I went to another website. Then I saw the message that should have also been on the first website: 'Content is not available for this area.' And I was angry. I was like, 'Mommy, can you imagine this site said that content and prices are not available for Nigerians?' She said, 'Are you sure you saw prices not available?'" Bola was forced to prove to her mom that she was not alone; Nigerians were blocked online. I understood Bola's astonishment and anger when my American expatriate status did not protect me from the scourge of impassable websites.
Using locally available resources while living in Nigeria, I also encountered blocked virtual ports of entry. I unremarkably surfed websites when home in the U.S., and though warned, I was unprepared for the shock I felt when denied access to a website—I thought, Is this happening? My external modem, purchased from one of the leading telecommunications and mobile-service providers, my link to the outside world, was the bridge to a tenuous Internet connection. Like any other day, I waited out the afternoon for the evening, when Internet usage was lower and chances for me to connect increased. During the day, when trying to connect to the Internet, I battled dial-up speeds, partial connections, and dropped connections like dropped calls. An Internet connection that was steady enough for me to access a website without seeing the frozen screen with the spinning gear in the middle was always a cause for celebration. That evening I was mid-celebration because the search engine stayed up longer than a minute. I hurriedly entered the website of an American professional society that I was a member of and then I waited. I looked at my laptop settings to check the connection speeds, assuming the signal had dropped. The connection signal was strong. I opened another tab and reentered the website address; maybe I had entered the wrong address. I still could not get in. I decided to wait until the next evening and try accessing the association website from the university server, which had a stronger and more stable connection than my modem. The university had a designated server and a very small aperture terminal (VSAT) for Internet connectivity. I typed the website address and almost accessed the homepage when a message came up: "ACCESS DENIED: You do not have permission to access this website on this server."
There was no explanation, no statement such as, "These countries have restricted access to this website." Though I was not purchasing anything, much like Bola, I had attempted to connect from a geographical location tagged as criminal because of Yahoo scams. I found myself joining the resounding cry of Nigerians when these messages pop up on their laptops and mobile devices, "This is because of Yahoo!" My cry, however, was not as full-throated because I knew that this disruption of my apparent Internet freedom was temporary. In addition to the frustration experienced from the unofficial embargo of Nigerian purchasing, it was puzzling that international online businesses would risk losing the Nigerian purchasing power over rumors and "just in case" scam activity. That is the purchasing power of thousands of Nigerians. Americans, Brits, and other Westerners connect to the Internet from nations rampant with scammers, yet they still enjoy unfettered access to commercial websites, while for Nigerians, these same sites put in place complex and expensive solutions to block their access to the sites.
SA: Those on the receiving end of Yahoo-Yahoo often think of these attempts as risible because they seem so obvious. What do we fail to understand about them if we think of Internet scams as mere oddities?
KH-R: One of the things that appear overlooked is the role of the scammed in the scam performance. Particularly, how does the West's perception of Africa and Africans inform the mark's/maga's (Yoruban slang for person being scammed) responses to the Yahoo scammers and the scam scripts known as formats? There are many different formats, but I will focus on the formats with scripts centered on Africans, African dignitaries, business owners, et cetera. For those who know or presume the scams are by Nigerians, there is the distrust of African ingenuity. There is also the larger issue of the characterization of corruption and unstable governments without considering the impact of imperialist and colonial histories and globalization on present-day governance in Africa. Daily, Nigerians discuss how colonial, postcolonial, and globalization systems impact Nigeria and Nigerians.
Nigerian youth recognize how globalization determines financial and economic constraints in their country that result, among other things, in the inability to find jobs. Yahoo boys and girls draw upon the memory of colonial systems and navigation of inaccurate postcolonial realities broadcast through new media and cable to understand how to scam Westerners. Of course, successful delivery of the plot requires performing Africa as desperate and backward, as depicted in popular portrayals. Yahoo boys and girls craft and perform these scripted postcolonial relations to establish confidence and trust. The performance is also guided by clandestine instructions for the Yahoo boys and girls to maintain control over the scams. These instructions are based on information gleaned from the Yahoo boys' and girls' lived experiences and historical memory of unequal power between Western nations and Africa. Like most confidence scams, the scammer must develop an intimate knowledge of the scammed to build confidence and command the scammed's desires, wants, and fears. A central theme in the performance of Africa centers on the Western imagination of the West as superior and Africa as backward and subordinate. Yahoo boys and girls perform these one-dimensional revamped versions of Western contact with Africa to animate a familiar, recognizable trope of Africa for Westerners. Yahoo boys and girls learn that Hollywood productions cast Africans as backward, incapable of possessing reason. Essentially, the Yahoo boys and girls are feeding back to the scammed imperialist views of Africa.
SA: Your book argues for an Africanist approach to technology. How would you describe such an approach and how has it informed your thinking?
Successful delivery of the plot requires performing Africa as desperate and backward, as depicted in popular portrayals.
KH-R: When I speak of an Africanist approach to technology, I am focusing on the marginalization of African scholarship and Indigenous knowledge bases in various stages of knowledge production, particularly in analyses of African relationships to and involvement with technology. Of particular interest to me is how Western studies of African science and technology do not engage African scholarship and African canons around contemporary uses/interactions of new media and technology in Nigeria. In so doing, I am troubling the foundational misstep that centers scholarship from the West about Africa and the Global South, establishing the idea that technological innovation and research, development, and the use of new media is centered in the West.
As a Western scholar studying engagement of information technology in Nigeria, my work needs to be informed by Nigerian scholarship, Western scholarship, and scholarship from the larger Global South. It is not good scholarship to only engage dominant canons that privilege Western and sometimes North American scholarship. In other words, my study and writing-up process involves the analyses of Nigerian scholarship coming from nationally based institutions and Nigerian scholarship throughout the globe. My research and writing process recognizes the scholarship in Africa and challenges dominant knowledge-production practices that marginalize Africa's scholarship, global Black scholarship, and scholarship of the larger Global South. This is a broader statement about current knowledge production practices that center Western analyses of Africa.
The Africanist focus in the West has a long history of not supporting or recognizing Indigenous scholarship. This circles back to the institutionalized views of African performance and its disconnection from innovation, discovery, and contributing to global scientific discoveries. There are few studies of Yahoo boys and girls as an extralegal computing community because Yahoo boys and girls do not fit the existing models of computing communities in Africa. This partial representation of Black peoples' relationship with technology and the marginality of critical studies of new media and race in dominant narratives of online communities reflect the challenge of Africa's representation in academic models and popular literature . Nigerian scholarship provides analyses that lend complexity to understanding how technologies are used and understood by Nigerians. It also explodes the defining principles of exported and local development of technologies, and the reorientation and uses of technologies within the context of West Africa, and Nigeria specifically. This scholarship complicates and questions the dominant narrative that locates Africa, specifically West Africa, outside of technological innovation and as a site that needs to be surveilled. Nigeria has two competing new media/ technology profiles: the 419 or Yahoo scams versus the lesser-known but growing Nigerian Silicon Valley. The pro-technology narrative is supported by the Information Technology Department of the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Information and Culture and the burgeoning technology industry in Lagos, known as "Naija Silicon Valley," also referred to as Africa's Silicon Valley [2,3].
The global community knows Nigeria as a scam nation. Within Nigeria, the computer and the Internet are sites of a battle against advance-fee-fraud tools for illegal activity and the development of Nigeria's information technology industry.
SA: This forum is called After Veillance to direct analytic attention toward the multiple modes of computer-aided watching beyond the visual. How does Yahoo-Yahoo involve multidirectional observation, both from Nigeria and by tech giants headquartered elsewhere? How might it involve other senses or affects other than those involving sight?
KH-R: Nigerians' access to the Internet and gaining entrance into other countries is framed by their concern with being profiled and distrusted because of their nationality and association with Yahoo-Yahoo activity. When arriving at international airports, Nigerian nationals are often pulled aside and questioned by airport security once their passport and bodies are observed. Online surveillance for Western companies uses geospatial markers such as IPs registered in Nigeria and essentially targets Nigerians and blocks them from various commercial and noncommercial websites. This surveillance significantly curbs Nigerians' rights to move through life, such as global travel without being seen as suspects and unrestricted access to websites. After enduring seemingly endless global surveyance, the newest concern is the potential reality of being surveilled at home in Nigeria. There are questions about the Nigerian state's introduction of ID cards that will require citizens to share identifying information to access banks, SIM cards, and so on. The government's claim is that the ID card will systemize citizens' access to resources and curb stolen-identity crimes such as Yahoo fraud. However, some critiques are concerned that the state and institutions that have this personal information will infringe on nationals' privacy and increase and expand its citizens' state surveillance .
2. Obasemo, O. Why Lagos (in Nigeria) is Africa's Silicon Valley. StartupGrind, 2015; https://www.startupgrind.com/blog/why-lagos-in-nigeria-is-africas-silicon-valley/
3. Ajagbe, M.A., Olujobi, J.O., Uduimoh, A.A., Okoye, L.U., and Oke, A.O. Technology based entrepreneurship financing. Lessons for Nigeria. International Journal of Academic Research in Accounting, Finance and Management Sciences 6 (2016), 150–163.
Sareeta Amrute is an anthropologist who studies the relationship between race, work, and data. She is principle researcher at the Data & Society Research Institute and affiliate associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is the author of Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin. email@example.com
Kamela Heyward-Rotimi is a practicing anthropologist. She is executive director and founder of the Knowledge Exchange Research Group (KERG). She also holds affiliations with the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria. firstname.lastname@example.org
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