Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Want a SIM card? Show your identity

A mobile phone user inserts a SIM card into a phone. Photo/WILLIAM OERI

A mobile phone user inserts a SIM card into a phone. Photo/WILLIAM OERI 

By BENJAMIN MUINDI

Mobile phone users will soon have to register their personal details if they are to remain connected.

Companies providing mobile phone services were on Tuesday given six months to register the details of their subscribers as the government moved to deter criminals from using their gadgets for illegal activities.

Those who will not have complied with the directive when the deadline expires will have their telephone lines disabled under the directive issued by President Kibaki on Monday night in a speech read for him by Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka at a ceremony to commemorate the Communication Commission of Kenya (CCK) 10th anniversary and ICT Expo at the Carnivore Hotel in Nairobi.

Kenya has 17.6 million mobile phone users. Once they are registered, the information will be kept under CCK’s custody.

The new regulation comes in the face of an upsurge in sophisticated crimes and a series of abductions after which the kidnappers demand ransom through mobile phone calls and text messages.

But the era when subscribers would just walk into a shop and by SIM cards without registration could be over after the President directed the Ministry of Information and Communication to put in place the elaborate data bank that will ensure that every phone number can be traced to its user.

Until now, criminals have been taking advantage of the fact that the owners of the mobile phone handsets and Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards are not registered before enjoying the service.

Speaking to the Nation on Tuesday on how the directive will be carried out, Information and Communication permanent secretary Bitange Ndemo said all SIM card holders will be required to furnish their particulars with their network providers before the end of the year.

Money transfer

“If users will not have complied with this deadline, their numbers will be shut out the network,” the PS said.

Operators in the mobile phones industry have argued that the lack of a necessary law was to blame for the anomaly.

However, Dr Ndemo hinted at amending the Kenya Communications Act to make the process legal.

Users of Safaricom’s M-Pesa and Zain’s Zap money transfer services have their SIM card details registered already. By May this year, M-Pesa had about six million users while Zap had about 600,000.

Telkom-Kenya’s fixed land line captures all the details of the users as well. If a subscriber dials 999, the company can identify the caller and where he or she is calling from.

When contacted to comment on the new directive, Zain CEO Rene Meza said the move would not reduce crime.

“Prepaid subscribers registration is a good initiative to identify mobile users. However, it does not prevent or reduce crimes as the criminals normally manage to get hold of stolen mobile phones or fake or stolen identity cards to get their own mobile connections,” he said.

This, he said, was based on his experience in Pakistan and Paraguay where the law required that prepaid subscribers be registered.

His sentiments were echoed by Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph.

“The issue of subscriber registration has been over-simplified by the political class and, in itself, it is not a panacea for addressing rising incidents of crime,” he said.

He drew the analogy from the registration of motor vehicles, which are often used in crimes, saying it was always the case that criminals steal vehicles and use them to commit crimes.

“In this same vein, subscriber registration will only assist the government to know who the honest citizens are and will have little or no impact in identifying criminal elements,” he said.

According to him, the government will have to find ingenious investigative methods to reduce phone-related crimes.

But the police spokesperson Eric Kiraithe said the move would enable his detectives manage crime.

“It is the way mobile telephone concept was introduced in the country that complicated the matter,” Mr Kiraithe said in an earlier interview with the Nation.

“The implementation did not factor the security question from its start.”

However, Mr Joseph told the government that it was important to understand that the support provided by telecommunications companies should not be treated as a substitute for proper investigations by the police.

“With the rising crime trends, it will be necessary for the government to invest in modern investigative techniques,” he said.

He, however, agreed that registration of SIM cards was an essential but not a legal requirement.

Such a law stipulates what information should be documented, how it is verified, how it will be managed and those entitled to access it to ensure confidentiality.

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