Business Day (Johannesburg)

South Africa: Operators Resigned to Sim Card Law

Johannesburg — ANYONE who bought a cellphone SIM card yesterday and was not asked to present their credentials was involved in a criminal act.

A new law aiming to crack down on criminal activities makes it an offence to sell a SIM card without recording the buyer's name, address, cellphone number, ID or passport number and checking their ID book or passport and a bill to confirm their address.

The reason for the rigmarole is to make it harder for criminals to buy SIM cards -- the theory being that if a call is linked to a crime, the police can see who bought the SIM card and make an arrest.

Not surprisingly there have been years of rebellion by the cellular networks and airtime resellers, pointing out that it inconveniences millions of people on the remote chance that it may help to capture a criminal minority. They complained that it would be hugely expensive, that some people had no formal address, and that it was pointless anyway. Anyone planning to use a cellphone to plot a heist was no doubt capable of producing fraudulent identification.

But the operators lost, and the registration of SIM cards under the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (Rica) is now in force.

Already there is a resigned acceptance, and the fight may go the way of the plastic bag furore.

The operators have already toned down their resistance.

This week MTN claimed to be positively eager to toe the line. "MTN is looking forward to the implementation of Rica, particularly that it would deal with the issue of stolen cellphones, which consumers have been raising," said executive Zolisa Masiza.

"You can help to make SA a safer place, as this law aims to help law enforcement agencies to identify the users of cellphone numbers and track criminals using cellphones for illegal activities," the operator said.

The law gives service providers 18 months to register all their subscribers, and anyone whose details are not recorded should be disconnected after that.

Independent service provider Altech Autopage Cellular also suddenly "fully supports" the act. All Autopage outlets will require proof of a new customer's identity, said Joe Makhafola, Altech's government liaison executive.

Given that Autopage mainly serves contract customers, it already has their personal details. If anything is missing, it will acquire those details within 18 months.

"Whilst the act does place some burden on the organisation and on customers, we believe this is a positive initiative from government that seeks to ensure the well-being of citizens, and I believe that this understanding will be embraced by consumers," Makhafola said.

Parts of Rica that required operators to introduce technologies to allow intercepted were introduced years ago. That was already helping law enforcement to a great extent, said Shenanda Janse van Rensburg, Cell C's corporate communications executive.

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