Registration of mobile phone SIM cards begins

Dr Bitange Ndemo, Information and Communications Permanent Secretary, registers his SIM card assisted by Carolyn Musyimi of Zain during the launch of the Mobile Phone SIM registration on June 21, 2010. Photo/FREDRICK ONYANGO

Mobile phone operators and their 20 million subscribers in Kenya greeted the registration of cell phone owners with caution on Monday, saying the move may not help curb crime and hate mail in a big way.

The government began registering subscribers to the four mobile networks hoping to discourage increased acts of extortion, fraud and kidnapping that have been perpetrated through mobile phones.

Corporates and individual subscribers - including minors - will be required to register their SIM cards.

Organisations and small businesses will have to provide users with their official numbers and physical location while parents will have to register on behalf of their children who are under the age of 18.

Information permanent secretary, Dr Bitange Ndemo, said lack of identity and the difficulty in traceability of transactions was one of the factors that underpinned the rise of crime perpetrated through mobile phones.

“The registration of the SIM cards will assist the law enforcement agencies in tracing criminals who use cell phones in these activities” said Dr Ndemo.

During the registration subscribers are expected to furnish the operators with information such as phone number, name, date of birth, gender, postal and physical addresses and a photo copy of the ID.

The success of the initiative, however, remains to be seen least because handsets sold in Kenya have a “hide caller identity” option.

Interference with handsets identity number or reprogramming of locked phones can earn the culprit five years in jail or a fine of Sh1 million as stipulated in the Kenya Communications (amendment) bill of 2009.

Zain Kenya managing director Rene Meza said SIM registration had been successful in Africa.

“There are many positives that will come out of this exercise. A key driver for us, is the ability to have a more personalised relationship with our customers” he said, adding that SIM registration was not the ideal vehicle to address kidnapping and general crime but it could help identify criminals.

Safaricom’s chief executive officer Michael Joseph said the convenience of mobile telephony had been harnessed by criminals.

“Compulsory registration of mobile phone lines will not put a stop to crime per se, but it will help isolate the criminal elements and make the perpetration of crime using a mobile telephone lines less convenient,” he said.

Kenya becomes the second East African country after Tanzania to register SIM cards.

South Africa, Bostwana, Cameroon and Ethiopia are among other African countries that have taken the measure.

The registration process by the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) and the four mobile operators, Safaricom, Zain Kenya, Telkom Kenya and Essar follows a presidential directive in July last year .

The CCK director-general, Mr Charles Njoroge, said the information collected during registration would be kept in confidence by the respective service providers and would only be released in accordance with the law.

“The information collected shall only be used for the purpose for which the exercise is being undertaken,” said Mr Njoroge.

Mobile subscribers have until the end of next month to register through their respective operators after which the unlisted lines will be deactivated.

New SIM cards will henceforth have to be registered on purchase.

The country has close to 20 million simcard holders, but only about half of them are registered with the operators.

The registration has sparked fears of slow customer growth in line with experiences in South Africa, Tanzania, Botswana and Cameroon.

Some subscribers are worried that SIM card registration will give authorities the ability to monitor people wherever they may be, listening in on conversations, reading text messages and monitoring Internet activity.

Operators, meanwhile, are concerned that card registration is putting a damper on subscriber growth while raising the cost data storage, leading to a decline in revenues.

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