24 May 2018

Uganda: Telcos Resume Simcard Sale

Kampala — After two months of public outcry and back and forth negotiations, telecom firms have finally resumed selling sim cards as Uganda's communications regulator struggles to help security agencies curb mobile phone-assisted crimes.

This follows the decision by the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) to lift the ban last week but with relatively stringent conditions. Faith Bugonzi, the Public Relations Officer of Airtel Uganda says customers can now buy sim cards upon presentation of national identity or local Identity cards, passport for a foreigner and a refugee card for a refugee.

She said it is mandatory for any person intending to buy a simcard to present him or herself in person, and that person's detail will be sent to the National Identification Registration Authority (NIRA) for verification given its status as a national information databank.

MTN Uganda has put in place similar measures for anyone willing to buy, swap or replace sim card. New MTN sim cards cost Shs2000, sim card swaps are only Shs1500 and customers are required to present a valid police letter that is at least 21 days old. 4G sim card upgrades or replacements are Shs1500 and customers are also required to present their current simcard.

UCC and telecom companies have been under intense pressure from the general public to institute measures to curb cyber-assisted fraud after a series of kidnaps and murders have been committed using unregistered sim card.

The most notable was the kidnap of Susan Magara, an employee of Bwendero Dairy Farm who was kidnapped and murdered after three weeks in captivity. The killers called her family several times using different sim card in different locations and Police and other security agencies were unable to track the killers.

The public was left dissatisfied with the response from the police and blamed the laxity of both UCC and the telecom companies. Pamela Ankunda, the head of public and international relations at UCC says the new measures mean that whoever is buying a sim card from any of the seven telecom firms, their biometric data will be captured.

"Previously, when the police would try to track some of these sim card, they would find that the cards are pre-registered in somebody else's names which would present a challenge for the authorities."

This development comes two months since MTN recorded a 10.7% growth in revenue to Shs1.68 trillion (5, 465milllion rand) last year, up from Shs1.5trilion in 2016 and Shs1.53 trillion in 2015 amidst decline in subscriber base.

The growth in profit was attributed to strong demand for data and digital services. The South African-based telecom firm ended the year with 10.7milliom subscribers down from 11.2million in the previous year citing regulatory related disconnections.

On the other hand, Airtel Uganda, which is yet to announce its financial performance for last year, said in January that it had hit 10million customers. However, Airtel Uganda, ended the 2016 financial year with 85.6% growth in net profit to Shs160.45billion on the back of improved uptake of mobile money, value added services and data.

New rules not enough

However there is still a high level of skepticism even as these measures are put in place, according to tech experts. Sam Tusiime, a tech enthusiast says the fact that both UCC and the telecoms have failed to switch off unregistered sim card is a matter of grave concern and leaves a major loophole in cyber-assisted security. "Kidnaps can be still carried out even with this... I doubt any person who is committing these crimes just started yesterday," he told The Independent.

"We have seen two incidences of kidnap that resulted in murder in the last two months where kidnappers used their victims' phones to call parents/relatives for ransom." He says these new rules are good but just enough to eliminate the new wave of crime we are seeing. Tusiime explains that advanced technology alone is not enough and says the prevailing socioeconomic conditions are a factor too.

"Unless those are fixed, there is no amount of tech related regulations that can stop the prevailing crime. The SIM Card issue is like the CCTV issue that is being touted as the solution to crimes," he argued further, "People are being kidnapped in places where CCTVs are not applicable. The crime issue can't be solved by tech. Anyone who thinks so is not being honest with the prevailing conditions in the country."

The 2013 GSMA White Paper on mandatory sim card registration, part of which was published in the South African based Daily Maverick, states that there is currently no empirical evidence of crime reduction directly resulting from sim card registration.

The US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Romania and the Czech Republic have selected not to implement sim card registration. In Mexico, mandatory registration was implemented in 2009, but was found to be ineffective in crime reduction and scrapped three years later.

In the UK, following the 2005 London terrorist attack, a task team of experts from law enforcement, intelligence structures, security agencies and service providers found that "the compulsory registration of ownership of mobile telephones would not deliver any significant new benefits to the investigatory process... "

The European Commission considered evidence from member states enforcing registration, and announced in 2012 that "there is no evidence, in terms of benefits for criminal investigation or the smooth functioning of the internal market, of any need for a common EU approach in this area".

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