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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Imperative of SIM cards registration


Features of the week:

The concept to have all users of telephone services in the country identifiable and traceable by the stakeholders led by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) is an essential step in the right direction, reports REMMY NWEKE.

RECENTLY, subscribers of one of the major Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) operators in the country, had difficulties recharging their lines, the next thing according to investigations was for most of them to discard their Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards, walk across to the street next to them and purchase another SIM from other networks they believe is ‘simply working’ for them to continue being in touch, especially these days that this communications tool has become a means of business transactions in the polity.

This explains how easy it is nowadays to get a SIM, just for the asking at most Nigerian shops or from hawkers on the streets and this applies to those who invariably have genuine businesses. But a big question mark here is what of those who need a new SIM just for criminal purposes?

Just a few weeks ago, a prominent Lagosian claimed he received a threat call from an unknown caller who also withheld the GSM line used thereof.

Worried by GSM crimes:
Obviously worried by this situation, which is gradually becoming rampant, the umbrella body of about 161 telecom firms in the country, founded in 1992, the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON) during its 2008 Annual General Meeting (AGM) listed top on its agenda the proposal for urgent accreditation of SIMs nationwide, which is intended to automatically halt the hawking of SIM packs on the streets.

SIM pack contains SIM card and other valuable information for customers or potential subscribers. SIM card is a small electronic card also called smart card used in mobile phones which carries the phone number, the operator’s serial numbers and used in identifying a telecom subscriber on a given network for billing and sundry services as well as a device for storing information in mobile phones for Security Information Management (SIM) purposes; a concept in data security and which could be transferred from one mobile handset to another as far as the handsets in question have cellular modules.

According to ATCON national president, Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, the proposed accreditation would aid national security greatly, stressing that the call has become necessary due to the security repercussions, and requested for mandatory call data retention database of all telecom operators to boost cyber-security initiatives of the government, as well as advocating that this database be highly classified as confidential and passworded, and restricted to on-line access to subscriber bio-database by appropriate law enforcement agencies via a multilaterally agreed access due process.

Accreditation to stimulate national database:
Dr. Ekuwem said that the accreditation would also avail the nation a database of telecom subscribers, especially on the GSM platform among others. Lamenting that as at today, Nigeria is the only country where you could pick a SIM pack on the street because it’s hawked without relevant data of the buyer. Pointing out that in other countries of the world, SIM packs are sold in shops where relevant data of the buyer is captured including details of the international passport data page.

“If a SIM after being purchased on the street is used to commit a crime it would be hardly traced, this is because the buyer may have used false name, if at all,” he said, adding that without the capturing of other important part of the buyer’s information such as photograph, the SIM in question could be used to perpetrate any evil act untraced.

He also disagreed with those who think the suggested accreditation would impact negatively on the sales record of operating companies and penetration of their networks, rather than allowing the illegality of picking SIMs on the street to continue, “it’s better for the nation and her citizenry to get it right now and support the reform. This would assist security agencies in curbing crimes committed via telecom and using GSM platform, which subscriber-base is over 42 million as at January 2008.”

Emphasizing that currently, there is need for the accreditation because whosoever makes a call or sends Short Messaging Service (SMS) that is inimical to the national security may not be traced.

This, he further said, would help the nation’s law enforcement agencies including the Police, Economic and Finance Crime Commission (EFCC), Nigeria Intelligence Agency (NIA), Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Crimes Commission (ICPC), State Security Services (SSS), Customs and Immigration to name a few, in carrying out their responsibilities effectively.

He argued that this exercise when eventually accepted and guidelines issued by the industry regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), would significantly advance criminal investigations.

ATCON also canvassed for a defined and registered distribution of dealer channels for SIM packs for the operating companies. He highlighted that sale of SIM packs after the accreditation expected to start after a moratorium of about six months or one year by any dealer or seller in the country would involve a photocopy of the buyer’s international passport data page or national identification card, filling of accreditation form containing basic bio data and contact address information.

Regulator taking the bull by the horn:
Reacting to this development, NCC after a one-day consultative forum held at its headquarters and attended by major telecom operators and security agencies in the country, announced that any unregistered SIM at the end of a deadline to be given soon, would be deactivated. The anticipated deadline, from ITRealms Online investigations would not be less than six months and not more than one year.

This much was affirmed by the Executive Vice Chairman (EVC), NCC, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, who said it has become imperative on the prepaid SIMs on the face of its security challenges to the nation, impressing that Nigeria would soon join the fray in compulsory SIM registration as obtained in some other countries of the world.

According to him, an Action Committee has been set up with a one month mandate and is expected to come up with guidelines on the mandatory registration, including specific deadline for already existing subscribers to get registered or face deactivation.

“Unregistered prepaid cards may be deactivated by the deadline of the registration period,” he said, enumerating other countries where same action have taken place previously to include Singapore, Australia, France, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Norway, Switzerland and South Africa. “So, Nigeria will not be the first or the only country strengthening controls to deal with the anonymity of prepaid SIM Cards,” he reiterated.

Underscoring the need for a time frame to be set aside when operators will commence compliance to ensure proper recording of the personal details of all customers who buy prepaid SIM cards, Ndukwe assured that subscribers could continue to use their pre-paid SIM cards as long as they register their particulars with respective mobile operators during the registration period.

Making crimes traceable:
Equally, he said, that it was precisely agreed that the registration of SIM cards by pre-paid subscribers and that the methodology of carrying out the registration would involve both potential and current subscribers. Pointing out that prepaid mobile phone users are those who use pay-as-you-go type of GSM and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) mobile services; could buy their SIM packs, from street corners and shops without proper identification.

Postpaid counterparts, he explained usually meet stringent identification conditions that make them traceable. Noting that though this was the first effort at systematically holding a discourse on the subject, the results of the consultative forum was intended to contribute to an evidence-based policy guideline on a practical regulatory regime on registration of pre-paid SIM cards and to ensure that mobile services remain a tool for social and economic development.

As said by him, NCC has been deliberating on this issue for lately, in addition to other complaints received from security agencies, concerned individuals and corporate organisation over the rise in the use of mobile phones to commit crimes and the difficulty in tracking down the perpetrators who take advantage of unregistered SIM card especially on prepaid platform.

“It is a widely held opinion that every technological development has provided a new opportunity for criminality and the introduction of cellular mobile telephone services is no exception. As part of an ongoing holistic security review by the government, the Commission by this consultative meeting planned to work together with all network operators who issue SIM cards to subscribers to agree on a workable regulatory regime,” he said.

Waiting for Committee report:
In the month of July, NCC named the members of Action Committee with one month’s mandate, but till the time of filing this report, the committee report is still being expected after over two months, just as ITRealms Online exclusively gathered that Director, Legal Services at NCC, Mr. Steven Andzenge-led committee, has finalized its assignment and is only waiting for an audience for submission to the appropriate quarters.

Essence of database:
On the readiness of some of the GSM operators, the chief executive officer, Zain Nigeria, Mr. Bayo Ligali, recently told ITRealms Online that the idea is a noble one, but Nigeria and regulator particularly has to get it right by ensuring that relevant structures needed for its success are on the ground, especially the database.

According to him, it would be extremely difficult to embark on such gallant initiative without a national database, where the security agencies could deploy for appropriate actions against the criminal minded telecom consumers.

Commenting on relevance of national database on this kind of project, the President, Global Network For Cyber Solutions, Mr. Chris Uwaje said in Abuja recently that the critical challenge facing the country, is that while the nation is developing online culture, it fails short of developing requisite national information infrastructure that could facilitate adequate response to online culture.

He cautioned that the earlier the nation tinkers on how to exploit its national database in terms of name, date of birth, date of death, house number, education, consumer records, the looming e-disaster may be averted.

Conclusion:
ATCON president, Ekuwem, once noted that though, there may not be a national database presently, but NCC has assured that it would actively collaborate with the National Identity Commission to ensure that the project becomes a success by way of stimulating the proper recording and identification of Nigerians, mostly telecom subscribers in the country.

And like the saying goes, a stitch in time saves nine.


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