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Deadline extended on Uganda's controversial SIM card registration

Deadline extended on Uganda's controversial SIM card registration

Following a request by its government, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has announced that it will extend the deadline of SIM card verification in the country to 19 May 2017.

The UCC had directed that all SIM cards be verified and validated against the National Identification and Registration Authority database on April 11, 2017, using national identification numbers for citizens and passports for alien residents within seven days.

In a statement issued by the UCC, Godfrey Mutabazi, Executive Director of the UCC said all parties involved in the process will now be expected to complete the work within the new guidelines.

"The Government has now directed that the Commission extend this verification and validation exercise to May 19, 2017. Accordingly, the Commission informs the public of the said extension and urges the general public to utilise the extended period to verify and validate their SIM cards using their National Identification Cards and numbers. The telecommunication service providers are directed to comply."

UCC enjoys the support of the Uganda Police Force, among other state institutions, for its SIM registration which has drawn criticism from some industry analysts.

Dr Alison Gillwald, Executive Director of Research ICT Africa (RIA) says the UCC's drive for registration of SIM cards in Uganda, which started in 2013, is misguided.

"Despite little evidence that mandatory SIM registration contributes to safeguarding our digital security and physical safety it has become a universal regulatory standard in Africa to facilitate the monitoring and interception of communications. With little to no public debate about the wider social or political effects and in the face of evidence of the negative effects on connectivity, particularly for the poor, 49 of the 55 countries in Africa by 2014 had mandated SIM card registration or were in the process of doing so. This is significantly more adoption than in other regions. According to the Global Mobile Association (GSMA) in 2013 African countries made up 37 of the 80 countries globally that had mandated pre-paid SIM registration."

Dr Gillwald says there is a lack of concern about the chilling effect that mandatory SIM registration has had on ICT diffusion, which is a key driver of economic growth and development on the continent, as well as for the stealth with which a pervasive continental and global surveillance system has been deployed through the deployment of private resources.

"Research tells us that stalling the positive network effects associated with a critical mass of connections, either through disconnecting lines or SIMS, limiting bandwidth availability or cost, or inhibiting access to the free and open use of the network resources through filters, censorship or fear of surveillance and detection, all inhibit the potential of ICTs to drive efficiencies and conditions for innovation in the knowledge economy through enhanced communication flows."

Dr Gillwald believes that if the UCC were to pushes ahead with its SIM Card registration requirement it will lead to the disconnection of SIM cards that belong to the poor and migrants as they are the ones often unable to provide the necessary identity documents or evidence of residency.

Dobek Pater, Managing Director at Africa Analysis shares Dr Gillwald's scepticism of the usefulness of SIM card registration.

"The main reason operators implement SIM registration is (because) of a regulatory requirement. Normally, the reason for the regulator requirement is to limit crime (including potential terrorist attacks) by using unregistered SIM cards to communicate by criminals. Unregistered SIM cards cannot be traced to an individual person without the details of who purchased such a SIM card.

I don't know how effective this is in terms of curbing crime. I am not aware of any studies that correlate SIM registration and a decrease in crime, and whether the two can be linked."

UCC has also included the Uganda's Ministry of Internal Affairs, National Identity Registration Authority (NIRA), Office of Prime Minister (Commissioner for Refugees) and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in its meetings with the telecommunications operators in an effort to get a method for deactivation of SIM Cards that considers the cost and other challenges for all interested parties.

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