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Surveillance scare

The Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) has started to implement changes made under the Communications Act of 2016 relating to registration of generic numbers and SIM cards, a provision that, if abused, can facilitate the establishment of extensive databases of user information, eradicate the potential of anonymity of communications, enable location tracking and simplify communications surveillance.

A report published by Paradigm Initiative looking at digital rights issues on the African continent in 2017 put SIM registration as one of the tools African governments are using to monitor and control communications infrastructure.

In its second edition of Digital Rights in Africa 2017, Paradigm Initiative notes that SIM user’s information can be shared with government departments and matched with other private and public databases, enabling the state to create comprehensive profiles of individual citizens.

When announcing the new requirements on Monday, Macra said phone users need to register their numbers by March 31 2018 and that those who fail to comply will automatically be barred from their networks until registration is done.

Macra said it is working with all phone companies to enforce the requirements in line with provisions contained in the Communications Act 2016, which gives the regulator powers to enforce mandatory registration of SIM cards and generic numbers.

When the proposals to amend the Communications Act were made by the Malawi Government, one of the justifications for mandatory SIM card registration was that it would help to combat crime.

However, researchers Kelvin P. Donovan and Aaron K. Martin in their work “The Rise of African SIM registration: The Emerging Dynamics of Regulatory Change” note that there is no conclusive evidence showing that SIM card registration helps to reduce crime. A sur vey of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries in 2012 found little or no evidence to support the assumption that SIM registration curbs crime. Canada’s Privacy Commissioner repudiated the idea after investigations. The idea was again rejected after consultations in Czech Republic, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands and Poland, among others.

Google Policy Fellow for Eastern and Southern Africa at Paradigm Initiative, Innocent Kalua, said within the Malawian context, there was need for supporting evidence whether SIM card registration helps to curb crime and to carefully balance that against the potential for communications surveillance, which would be made easy with SIM card registration, thereby negatively impacting on rights of privacy and freedom of expression.

A privacy, Steve Song, points out that with an international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) catcher, it is possible for state agencies to listen passively to mobile phone traffic and pick up the identity of all the phones in a given area, which can then be matched with data on the SIM card registration database to identify and target political opposition. Kalua said these concerns need to be weighed carefully against the claim that SIM card registration helps to combat crime.

But Macra Communications Manager, Clara Mwafulirwa, has dismissed these findings insisting that the regulator is implementing the provision solely to protect mobile users.

“This is the same as the Know Your Customer process service other service providers are already implementing. Our mandate is to promote ICT development and protecting mobile users,” she said.

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