Mandatory Registration of Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) Cards in Africa – Ingenious Idea or Misplaced?

10th September 2010 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

New compulsory decrees for tighter regulation of the mobile phone industry abound in Africa. Cellular phone service providers are required by law to register their clients' particulars. State authorities justify the rule as an endeavour to rein in the escalating incidence of crimes facilitated by such telephones, help to eliminate fraud and strike a blow against money laundering. Recent global media reports have highlighted threats by state authorities such as in India and Dubai to block the use of blackberry services on state security concerns. Authorities claim that registration will therefore enhance the efficiency of law enforcement.

There is little doubt that proliferation of the use of cellular phones globally has transformed lives in Africa, where fixed telecommunication infrastructure is severely limited and in many cases - especially in far flung rural communities - non existent. Beyond facilitating real time communication, the mobile phone has proved to be a convenient and effective technology for farmers, small-scale traders, teachers, health workers, and providers of essential services across the continent.

Hitherto non-banked poor people can transact and receive monies at the press of a button and contribute to the livelihood and development of their nations. The recent launch of mobile money transfer in South Africa by Nedbank and Vodacom has been heralded as timely - opening new frontiers for the unbanked in the country. South Africa seeks successful experiences of a similar model in Kenya where the service is ingrained and popular with all and sundry and is being rolled out in neighbouring countries. The expectation is that all of Africa might soon be covered by the mobile money transfer service.

There also lie dangers of abuse of the nascent technology. Just as with forms of modern technology such as the Internet, unregulated growth breed's loopholes for abuse. While the benefits of cell phone technology in Africa undoubtedly far surpass instances of misuse, it has not been without serious challenges. According to media reports in Nigeria and Somalia, mobile phones are used to communicate demands for ransom for kidnapped foreign oil workers and hijacked ships respectively. In Kenya, cell phones have been used by convicted criminals in prison to demand ransom from people and in recent weeks to spread fear and anxiety among the populace with scary hoax messages - a recent SMS doing the rumour mills in the country claimed that people would die if they picked certain calls from certain numbers. The use of cell phones to ignite and coordinate recent protests in Mozambique over food price escalation, have also brought to the fore the threat of the devices to national security. Indeed, criminals across the continent and beyond are also known to use cell phones to commit fraud, to facilitate the laundering of proceeds of fraud, to commit robberies, to demand and obtain bribes, and to market drugs. The ease with which one could acquire, use and dispose of a cellular phone's SIM card, with little if any trace, provides undetected escape routes for crooks and criminals.

By assigning an identity to prepaid devices, and tracking their use, it is hoped to enable the police and other agencies to intercept and respond to criminal communications and in turn curtail criminal activity. State authorities argue that information obtained from intercepted conversations can ‘add to the stock of crime intelligence.' In Kenya, the Ministry of Provincial Administration and Internal Security justified registration of SIM cards on the basis that the instigators of the infamous post-election violence of 2007 used anonymous Short Message Service (SMS) to incite violence. The police could not trace and arrest them since no identity was attached to the cell phones in use at the time.

Other African countries that have issued regulatory directives or are planning to do so include Algeria, South Africa, Cote D'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. Outside Africa, Germany, France, Australia and Japan are among those that have banned anonymous prepaid phones by requiring registration of all users and equipment.

The Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (RICA), which came into force in July 2009 in South Africa requires mandatory registration of SIM cards. Subscribers have until December 2010 to register numbers and all new SIM cards have had to be registered before they can be activated. In terms of mobile money transfer and mobile banking services, RICA can be employed to curb money laundering- since the identity of transferees and receivers can be traced.

However, the directives have not been without controversy. One of the key concerns among mobile phone users has been the risk of their identity particulars falling into the wrong hands - criminals' intent on identity theft to further their criminal acts through mobile phones. Abuse of RICA by state authorities to infringe upon privacy rights is also a concern. Others include non-availability of valid identification documents for undocumented migrants and rural people, which will severely curtail their access to convenient and affordable communication.

Mobile registration as a measure to deter or otherwise reduce criminal activity associated with mobile phones is also of questionable effectiveness. While it may be true that prepaid mobile phones are a chosen communication device for criminals, a survey of prepaid mobile phone regulation and registration policies among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member states, by the Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, suggests that it is not necessarily true that registration of prepaid mobile phones will act as a deterrent to those who are serious about committing criminal or terrorist acts. The research in fact argues that it may on the contrary lead criminals to resort to identity fraud to obtain prepaid phones.

At the same, it appears that SIM card registration in whatever form is here to stay. It is therefore opportune to embrace the directive and rather call on authorities to:

(1) Guarantee the fundamental freedoms of individuals including the right to privacy while implementing the directive - there should be clarity on the type of information that may be collated and analysed to inform criminal intelligence.

(2) Ensure that the objectives of the SIM card registrations are attained through effective monitoring and compliance mechanisms. At present, apart from the threat of disconnecting unregistered subscribers, there is little information on how authorities intend to enforce compliance of SIM card registration.

Written by: Gladys Mirugi-Mukundi, Research Intern, Organised Crime and Money Laundering Programme, ISS Cape Town