SIM Re-registration: “It does seem like there’s something fishy going on”

Interview: Pazhany Rangasamy

* ‘The timing of both the SIM card re-registration regulation and the new digital and mobile ID regulation, especially during an electoral year, raises serious concerns’

Amidst global protests against SIM card re-registration, concerns about privacy, surveillance, and government overreach have surfaced. In Mauritius, the decision by the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (ICTA) to mandate SIM card re-registration has similarly raised apprehensions. In an interview with Mauritius Times, attorney Pazhany Rangasamy, who has filed a case contesting the constitutionality of the regulation, shares insights on the specific concerns surrounding the re-registration process, shedding light on issues of transparency, privacy, and democratic principles.

Mauritius Times: Protests against SIM card re-registration in some countries stem from concerns regarding privacy, surveillance, and potential government overreach. What specific concerns do you have regarding the re-registration process of SIM cards as decided by ICTA here?

Pazhany Rangasamy: The opacity surrounding the process of re-registering a SIM card generates considerable discomfort and mistrust in the execution of this initiative. The operators’ pre-existing contracts with SIM card subscribers, regulated under the Data Protection Act 2017, indicate that these operators are now in breach of contract with their clients due to the enforcement of this new regulation by the ICTA.

Given this situation, compelling citizens to furnish biometric photos and other personal data, which will be handled by operators and transmitted via the ICTA for verification on the Central Population Database (CPD), raises numerous concerns. Particularly during the verification process through the ICTA middleware, there is a lack of transparency regarding whether the biometric photos are being stored elsewhere or not.

* How do you respond to the government’s arguments in favour of SIM card re-registration, particularly regarding security and accountability?

How can the government talk about security and accountability when the agreement between the operators and ICTA has not been disclosed till now? At least if it was made public, we would have been in a better position to not only assess the extent of security put in place to safeguard data privacy but also the degree of accountability among each relevant party involved in the process.

* How do you perceive the delicate balance between safeguarding national security concerns, addressing the imperative to combat drug trafficking, and upholding the fundamental rights to individual privacy?

Of these three issues, only two can be effectively addressed within a robust and adaptable legal framework. Balancing national security and data privacy indeed requires careful navigation, as there is a delicate line between the two. However, including combatting drug trafficking in this equation lacks logic.

Combatting drug trafficking should not be conflated with assessing national security and data privacy in the country. The strategy to combat drug trafficking involves several distinct components that are independent of national security and data privacy concerns.

* Besides legal arguments that you are presenting in your case, have you seen any evidence or indicators that the SIM card re-registration process could be exploited to manipulate or influence elections?

Given the current lack of transparency surrounding the process of biometric photo capture by operators and its transit through ICTA middleware for verification, there exists a notable element of uncertainty regarding the fate of these photos. Once personal data provided to phone operators is stored without formal protection, the potential for manipulation arises, especially with the introduction of the new mobile ID system.

The concern is that these stored photos could potentially be utilized in creating fraudulent mobile IDs, accessible via mobile phones. In a scenario where an individual is abroad, their mobile ID could be exploited by a fraudulent voter to impersonate them and cast a vote in their absence. Consequently, it’s imperative for the electoral commissioner to issue an official statement regarding the use of mobile IDs during the upcoming general elections, ensuring transparency and safeguarding against potential electoral fraud.

* In your view, how does SIM card re-registration relate to broader issues of surveillance and government control?

The imposition of SIM card re-registration via regulation rather than through parliamentary debate raises suspicions. It does seem like there’s something fishy going on… that “il y a anguille sous roche”. Requiring citizens to provide extensive personal information such as national ID, proof of address, gender, birth date, and even a selfie, effectively links the SIM card to the user’s identity and life.

The transit of this sensitive personal data through the ICTA for verification on the CPD, without clear visibility into its processing or storage, raises concerns. There’s a worry that this re-registration process may be connected to broader issues of surveillance and government control.

Personal data, particularly biometric photos linked to a SIM card and mobile phone, present significant privacy risks. They could potentially be exploited to track citizens accurately, especially given the extensive network of Safe City 4000+ intelligent cameras across the island. Such practices would constitute a major breach of the local Data Protection Act 2017.

* In your opinion, what are the potential implications for citizens if the re-registration of SIM cards is allowed to proceed unchecked?

The potential consequences of non-compliance with SIM card re-registration are indeed significant, especially for those who resist such regulations. While a substantial proportion of the 2.3 million SIM cards, especially those belonging to subscribers from government agencies, corporations, banks, and other businesses, have been re-registered according to figures from operators and the ICTA, there remains a notable segment of the population who have not complied.

Even if a relatively small number, say 10,000 to 50,000 individuals, fail to register their SIM cards (which may represent multiple cards per person), it could still result in a substantial loss of revenue for phone operators. Moreover, this situation could have profound implications for the lives of these citizens, many of whom are not involved in illicit activities like drug trafficking and are simply earning their livelihood honestly.

The potential outcome of such non-compliance could exacerbate existing social and digital divides within a small country with a population of less than 1.3 million, leading to a fractured society where certain segments are disconnected from essential communication services and facing economic hardships as a result. Finding a balance between regulatory compliance and protecting the rights and livelihoods of citizens is crucial in addressing these complex challenges.

* It the exercise as decided by ICTA is allowed to proceed unchecked, what steps, if any, do you think government should take to ensure transparency and fairness in the SIM card re-registration process?

To alleviate concerns regarding potential surveillance through the SIM card re-registration process, it’s imperative for the government, through the ICTA, to provide full transparency. This includes disclosing the agreement with the operators involved and publicly sharing the technical framework implemented for the re-registration process.

By doing so, technical and legal experts in the field can assess the procedures and advise the government via the ICTA on how to enhance data privacy protection for citizens. This transparent approach promotes accountability and fosters trust among the population, ensuring that privacy concerns are adequately addressed and mitigated.

* Do you support the idea put forward requiring the government to postpone the re-registration exercise until after the next elections?

Yes, definitely. Indeed, the timing of both the SIM card re-registration regulation and the new digital and mobile ID regulation, especially during an electoral year, raises serious concerns about the necessity and urgency of these measures. Given that SIM card registrations have already been completed by subscribers, it is unnecessary, in my view, to burden the population with additional uncomfortable and doubtful practices.

Instead of placing the responsibility on the population, the focus should be on prison authorities to effectively curb the usage of unauthorized phones in prisons. Moreover, considering that the current national ID card serves as a valid and legal document for accessing services in the country, the relevance of introducing new regulations at this time appears questionable.

Therefore, there is a need for careful evaluation of the timing and necessity of these regulations to ensure that they serve the best interests of the population without causing unnecessary inconvenience or distrust.

* Postponing the re-registration exercise until after the next elections could indeed be viewed as a temporary and acceptable solution given the current political context. However, it might not entirely address the concerns of those, like yourself, who oppose re-registration. What should be the next step?

Absolutely, the timing of these regulations is concerning, but even after the elections, there’s no guarantee that the government will proceed in accordance with established regulations. In a true democracy, governed by democratic principles, it’s essential for the people to be consulted on such matters.

Moreover, the rationale behind the re-registration of SIM cards is unfounded. Instead of focusing on tracking innocent citizens under the false pretext of combatting drug proliferation, the authorities should address the core issues related to drug trafficking in the country.

It’s crucial to prioritize genuine solutions rather than using regulatory measures as a means to watch over and oppress individuals, including journalists and members of the opposition. Protecting civil liberties and ensuring the rights of all citizens should be paramount in any democratic society.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 10 May 2024

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