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SIM Card Registration Newest Assault on Privacy and Freedom of Expression in Zimbabwe

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, October 9 2013

Harare, Zimbabwe (Wikipedia)

As of October 1, Zimbabweans have 30 days to register their SIM cards with their service providers, or risk a fine or imprisonment of up to six months. The Zimbabwean government is also establishing a single subscriber database of all the subscribers' personal information. The government justifies these measures as necessary to safeguard national security, but human rights activists in Zimbabwe say that they pose a threat to citizens' privacy and free expression.

The demand that citizens register their SIM cards, and that mobile service providers de-activate unregistered subscribers, is part of Zimbabwe's new regulation for subscriber registration issued by the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.

To register, cell phone users must give their service providers their full name, address, nationality, gender, and their national identity number or passport number.

To comply with the new regulations, mobile service providers must retain that information for at least five years after the customer ends their contract, and to “produce their subscriber register to the authorities free of charge upon request.”

A collective of Zimbabwean NGOs and civil society organizations called the Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe has posted an article outlining the problems with SIM registration in their country. They argue that the new measures will “[increase] the potential that the repressive state will spy on its citizens and further clamp down on free speech.”

They elaborate: “Mandatory SIM card registration eradicates the potential for anonymity of communications, enables location-tracking, and simplifies communications surveillance and interception.”

The activists also assert that, although SIM registration has become a common practice in many African states, it has been ineffective in curbing crime and in some cases increased it.

For many of the above reasons, the activists say, “SIM registration has been rejected after consultation in Canada, Czech Repulic, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands and Poland.”

TechPresident contacted Mai Truong, the Africa Research Analyst for Freedom House's annual Freedom on the Net report, to see if the Zimbabwean activists concerns about SIM card registration were legitimate.

“We include it in our assessments for net freedom because it's murky, but we don't automatically assume that, because there are SIM card registration [laws] in place that it's being abused,” Truong explained in a phone call. “There are legitimate reasons for collecting data...it's important to contextualize it” in the “political landscape.”

Truong explained that SIM registration is only problematic when it is government mandated and when there are no legal protections in place for the information, either from “governance with bad intentions” or “other actors who could use the data for ill purposes.”

Unfortunately, Zimbabwe does not have any laws to protect cell phone users' information. In fact, Truong says the vague and broad language of the law ensures that any government minister could access the information for virtually any reason.

According to the activists' document, “Access to the database will be available for the purpose of law enforcement, upon the written request of a law enforcement agent, or for “safeguarding national security,” as well as for “undertaking approved educational and research purposes.” ”

Truong says it is truly concerning that the government can get information on cell phone users with just a written request, without needing a court-issued warrant. And she called the new rule of law in Zimbabwe “pernicious” because private providers now have to turn over the information to the government for their central database, without any justification whatsoever.

Other countries like Kenya and Uganda also have a registration system in place for SIM cards, but Freedom House still considers these countries to have relative freedom on the Internet. In those countries, providers hold onto the data unless required by a court order to provide the government with the information.

Mobile subscribers in Kenya have had to register their SIM cards with their service providers since July 30, 2010. The government directive was put in place because of the proliferation of crimes using mobile phones, including handset theft, hate messages and threats, and extortion. It was also supposed to protect Kenyans from terrorism, drug trafficking, and money laundering.

The Director General of the Communications Commission of Kenya at the time, Charles J.K. Njoroge, told the public that, “The information collected shall only be used for the purpose for which the registration exercise is being undertaken and where necessary the information may only be availed to the authorities to the extent permitted by the law.”

SIM registration in Kenya has recently hit the headlines again. In the wake of the attack at the Westgate Mall, authorities in Kenya are cracking down on cell service providers who have not been registering SIM Cards. It has come to light that the terrorists responsible were using unregistered cell phone lines, officials announced October 8. The investigation is going all the way to the top: the chief executives of the four mobile service providers have been questioned by the authorities.

“We have arrested and prosecuted a number of vendors who were selling these SIM cards and we summoned the CEOs of these firms to explain what they have done to stop the crime,” the Director of the Criminal Investigations Department, Ndegwa Muhoro, told the Associated Press.

The chief executives of the four mobile service providers, Safaricom, Telekom Kenya, Essar Telecom Kenya and Airtel Kenya, have all denied the existence of active, unregistered SIM cards.

So why have activists called foul on SIM registration in Zimbabwe but not Kenya? What it comes down to, explains Mai Truong, is that countries like Zimbabwe are already “very limited in their Internet freedom and freedom of expression” and because their government “is much more autocratic and repressive than the other governments we look at,” such as those that have institutions in place to protect privacy and freedom of expression.

In countries like Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, “civil society is strong enough to hold rule of law in place” when it comes to things like SIM registration, says Mai Truong. That's just not the case in Zimbabwe, which is why activists are voicing legitimate concerns in light of this new law.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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