African nations use SIM card question to mandate control

WHAT has been alarming about the talk shows, social networks and even traditional media coverage of the biggest penalty in regulatory history being faced by MTN in Nigeria, for failing to register SIM cards, is the apparent lack of concern about the chilling effect mandatory SIM registration has had on the spread of information and communications technologies (ICT).
This is a key driver of economic growth and development on the continent, and the stealth with which a pervasive continental and global surveillance system has been deployed through private resources should set off alarm bells.
Despite little evidence that mandatory SIM registration contributes to safeguarding our digital security or physical safety, it has become a universal regulatory standard in Africa to facilitate the monitoring and interception of communications. With little to no public debate about the wider social or political effects, and in the face of evidence of negative effects on connectivity — particularly for the poor — by 2014, 49 of the 55 countries in Africa had mandated SIM card registration or were in the process of doing so.
This is a significantly higher proportion than in other regions. According to international industry body GSMA; in 2013, African countries made up 37 of the 80 countries globally that had mandated prepaid SIM registration.
Like Nigeria, in SA, the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Amendment Act (Rica) penalises operators’ failure to comply with imprisonment or a fine of up to R100,000 per day of noncompliance (similar to Nigeria’s $1,000).
But beyond the possible disconnection of their phones, unlike most other jurisdictions, individuals in contravention of the act in SA face a fine of up to R60,000 or a prison sentence as long as 12 months.
During the implementation of Rica in SA, more than 1-million SIMs, largely of the poor and migrants unable to provide the necessary identity documents or proof of residence, were disconnected.
For the system to work, there needs to be an overwhelming deterrent against noncompliance. This is reflected in the explanation of the chief of staff to the president of Nigeria at an unprecedented meeting between the regulator, telecom CEOs and the heads of the main security agencies last month, at which he implored operators to take the matter seriously, noting that “security and safety of the people is number one on the president’s agenda”.
Operators were advised that continued noncompliance would lead to a 200,000 naira ($1,000) fine for every noncompliant card that had not been disconnected, and that all businesses must respect the law or risk their licences being revoked.
Leaving aside MTN’s inexplicably risky behaviour for a publicly listed company operating in a regulated sector, the Nigerian Communications Commission has also now argued itself into a corner from which retreat may mean defeat.
The rationale for restricting the mass legitimate use of a service is to prevent its limited criminal use, yet there is little evidence of the feasibility of mandatory SIM registration, never mind its effectiveness.
In this way, it is very much akin to the kind of all-pervasive net cast over the visa system in SA to stop the limited number of cases of child trafficking with arguably similarly negative unintended consequences for the economy and society.
Even nonsecurity motivations for SIM registration have had to acknowledge the futility of relying on the process to provide reliable data. The International Telecommunications Union, the United Nations agency responsible for global ICT statistics, initially supported SIM registration to improve the accuracy of their indicators.
But the widespread registration of SIMs by surrogates to enable those without identity documents, a physical address or legal travel documents to acquire cellphones, as well as extensive sharing, redistribution and theft of SIM cards across Africa have made this impractical.
In most wealthy countries, where public policy processes require evidence of effectiveness, SIM registration has been rejected. After consultations, Canada, Ireland, Poland, the Netherlands and Greece have all done so on the grounds of insufficient evidence that it achieves its stated goal.
Given the lack of evidence about the efficacy of SIM registration for security, analysts argue that the institutional homogenisation in Africa is a result of ambiguity and uncertainty on the part of institutions overseeing the transformation brought about by the growth of largely anonymous mobile communications. These create a situation of unpredictability in which mimicry occurs between countries.
Under these circumstances, the rationale becomes the international normalisation of the practice. As a result, in many African countries, including SA, mandatory SIM registration and other online surveillance measures are presented as an indisputable matter of national interest, requiring engagement only with the operators to ensure technical implementation with very little engagement with the public.
Mandatory SIM registration is generally initiated through intelligence, security or criminal justice departments, but in the public process for the enactment of law, national security invariably trumps economic and development or sector policy.
While mandatory SIM registration has inhibited the take-up of services, mobile communication in Africa is still the most available medium for commercial exploitation, and likewise, the most effective for mass surveillance.
What is of concern is that crime-weary South Africans — and even more, one imagines, Nigerians facing the Boko Haram onslaught — have accepted the veil of surveillance. Through the deployment of private-sector resources and minimal citizen resistance, surveillance has become normalised, despite extensive evidence of abuse by governments who use it to track the activities of activists, spy on their opposition, detain and harass religious and ethnic minorities and gay communities — and even for state-sanctioned kidnapping and assassination.
There is already evidence that the recent barbarous attacks in Paris, and the anger and fear they have elicited, are likely to be exploited by the intelligence and security establishment across the globe to combat resistance to the curtailment of our online and offline rights and freedoms in the name of national security.
For the state to constrain the rights they are responsible for upholding in the name of those who have lost their lives in brutal attacks in Nigeria, Kenya, Beirut or Paris is to succumb to the terror they have wrought and to extend the opacity and arbitrariness in which such groups flourish.
Alison Gillwald

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