The recent order by the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) to mandatorily register telephone SIM cards has exposed the regulator as lagging behind both in industry global policy discourse and in use of available industry knowledge. The order that has largely been a public relations disaster for UCC and the government was at best a knee-jerk reaction rather than an informed policy decision.
Contrary to UCC’s argument that SIM registration is intended to support counter-terrorism and fighting crime, available industry knowledge that has attracted wide debate in many countries around the world over the past few years, actually shows no evidence that mandatory SIM registration helps prevent crime, or helps in investigating it or even in prosecuting criminals in associated cases. As a result countries that had enacted policies for mandatory SIM registration have either repealed them, or left them to lie dormant.
It is widely believed that the latest edict for mandatory registration of SIM cards issued by the UCC was at the egging of the Uganda Police Inspector General, Kale Kayihura, following the assassination of Assistant Inspector of Police Felix Kaweesi. Gen. Kayihura argued publically that if SIM cards were registered it would be easy to track, crack and arrest criminals involved in heinous crimes like the murder of Felix Kaweesi.
It turns out that this logic runs contrary to industry knowledge built from several studies done in many countries that has been a subject of intense policy debate around the world.
In 2009, Mexico enacted a policy for mandatory SIM registration. Three years later, when they evaluated the usefulness of the exercise they concluded that the exercise was not useful in prevention, investigation and prosecution of crimes. The policy was accordingly repealed. Since then a number of other governments, including the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Romania and New Zealand, among others have considered making prepaid SIM registration mandatory, but in the end concluded against it.
The case of the UK is particularly interesting vis-à-vis counter terrorism. The issue of mandatory SIM registration became prominent in the UK following the July 2005 terrorist underground tube bombing in London, in which several lives were lost. The UK government constituted a panel of experts comprising representatives from law enforcement, security; intelligence agencies and communications service providers, to critically and in detail consider mandatory SIM card registration.
Following a thorough investigation and consideration, the panel concluded thus, in a report: ”The compulsory registration of ownership of mobile telephones would not deliver any significant new benefits to the investigatory process and would dilute the effectiveness of current self-registration schemes.”
Studies conducted by GSMA- a global association of mobile telcom industry players- corroborate both the Mexican and UK findings; that although criminals use telephones to coordinate their activities, SIM registration does not reduce crime, nor does non-mandatory registration increase crime. In other words mandatory registration has zero effect on levels of crime.
The GSMA is an association of over 800 mobile telco operators with almost 300 companies in the broader mobile ecosystem, including handset and device makers, software companies, equipment providers and internet companies, as well as organisations in adjacent industry sectors.
A 2013 report released by GSMA found that even in countries where mandatory SIM registration existed, criminals found other ways to access cards such as theft of active cards (they actually found that mandatory registration increased the rate of theft of handsets- and SIM card; and their owners’ identity). The report also noted that criminals got round the registration hurdle by registering in neighbouring countries but “roam” in countries where they commit the crimes. There were also instances where dead people’s IDs were stolen and used to register cards. In other words, somehow, criminals found ways to access active SIM cards, even with mandatory registration.
Global statistics show that “pay-as-you-go” purchased SIM cards, normally put to use without any rigorous registration to the name of the real user, constitute 77 per cent of active cards on mobile telcom networks (about 4 billion SIM card). In Africa, this proportion is even higher at 95 per cent. This means that telcoms –one of the biggest tax payers in any country today- essentially depend on revenues from “pay-as-you-go” pre-paid users, rather than the registered post-paid users.
Two years ago, when Rwanda made registration mandatory, in spite of several registration deadline extensions, by the time the government reached its cut off; nearly half a million SIM cards had not been registered. These were switched off, at a high economic cost, and probably half a million people cut off from communication and associated benefits, sometimes for reasons beyond their control.
In China, SIM registration has also been criticized because the Government has been accused of using registration data for denying citizens freedom of speech as use of telephones is believed to be closely watched by the Government. Information used for registration of telephone cards is also believed to have been used for cracking down on demonstrations as registered users are followed using their SIM card data.
Mandatory SIM Card registration was first used in 2003 in Germany, Switzerland and Brazil. Since then many countries picked up the practices and established laws and policies towards the same; but the practice is increasingly being dropped as redundant especially for security uses.
However, studies also show that there are positive unintended benefits of SIM registration, which some countries have used to incentivise voluntary registration rather than use forced registration. These include improvement in e-government and m-commerce. Registration of SIM cards gives confidence for business transaction to the phone. It is on such confidence that innovations like mobile money and all transactions associated with it, are made possible. Registration also improves e-governance as SIM registration can be linked to national civil registration which in turn can be linked and used in social security, national health insurance, among others that can be used to improve delivery of services by government.
Countries like Finland, for example, have used the benefits side of things to incentivise registration of SIM cards-though registration of cards remains optional. Users whose cards are registered can ease transactions in banks, retail outlets, access to government services, etc which has driven many users to register their cards on their own volition, without having to compel and issue threats.