‘SIM registrations hold back African mobile phone take-up’
Regulations hamper growth while enabling governments’ to spy on citizens, says academic.
The widespread adoption of Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) registrations among African nations is a barrier to mobile phone uptake and could even be used by governments to spy on citizens.
This is according to Kevin Donovan, a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Cape Town, who is the co-author of a working paper titled “The Rise of African SIM Registration: Mobility, Identity, Surveillance & Resistance”.
In nations such as South Africa, SIM registrations are required as part of the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (RICA).
The Act attempts to help track down criminals who may have used cell phones in the execution of crimes. Under the law, everyone with a SIM card has to provide proof of address and identity if they want a post-or-pre-paid mobile phone contract.
As of October 2012, at least 48 of 54 African countries require SIM registrations similar to SA’s RICA or are in the process of implementing these requirements, says Donovan in his report. However, prior to 2006, no African country had this policy in place, he adds.
Speaking to ITWeb Africa, Donovan said that although SIM card registrations are touted as a security and commercial measure, they could rather be an obstacle to Africans attempting to gain access to mobile phones.
Africa has over 700 million mobile subscribers, according to Global management firm, AT Kearney.
“The documents required for SIM card registration are often difficult for people to obtain,” Donovan told ITWeb Africa.
“Also there is very limited evidence that can justify claims that SIM card registration is important and is a security benefit,” he added.
Thecla Mbongue, senior research analyst, Informa Telecoms & Media in South Africa, agrees that SIM card registrations could impact operators’ subscriber numbers. But she doesn’t think it could slow down Africa’s uptake of mobile phones.
“The exercise does impact the number of subscriptions but it doesn’t slow down the growth of the African mobile market,” she said.
“Such an exercise is usually for security concerns and ideally operators should have necessary information about subscribers to market their products,” Mbongue explained.
Yet Donovan is adamant the registrations could scupper mobile phone uptake on the continent. He further says that SIM registrations have the potential not only to track criminals but also to be used to spy on customers not participating in criminal activities.
“SIM registration has the potential to give rise to communication surveillance and further complicate emancipatory influences of modern technology, especially given the rise of the African population’s access to mobile phones,” Donovan’s report reads.
Ultimately, Donovan says more debate is needed regarding the adoption of SIM card registrations in Africa.
“There needs to be public debate around these efforts and around the claims of many governments that say SIM card registration is a benefit for security purposes.
“Any committed criminal would be able to get around these SIM requirements either by roaming or using another provider from another country or a private phone and spoofing it,” he added.
“And we’ve seen an enormous amount of fake registrations occurring or fake SIM cards being used that are pre-registered to ghosts or other people, so there’s a lot of improvements that should be done before SIM card registration successful initiative,” Donovan concluded.