Upholding Civil Liberties

in the face of SIM Card re-registration


The ongoing resistance against the re-registration of SIM cards in Mauritius underscores a broader concern for civil liberties and data privacy. Initiated by the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (ICTA) on October 31st and scheduled to conclude on April 30th, 2024, this exercise according to the Authority stems from the four year-old Lam Shang Leen Drug Report and aims to curb illicit activities, particularly among drug traffickers and criminals, by ensuring SIM cards are registered to their rightful owners. However, opposition to this initiative has intensified, especially regarding the mandatory inclusion of biometric photos, raising alarm bells about potential misuse of biometric data and infringement of privacy rights.

Critics rightfully point out the contradiction between this exercise and previous judicial rulings. The Supreme Court’s declaration of the collection of biometric data for identity cards as unconstitutional (ref: Dr Raja Mahadewoo case)casts doubt on the legality of similar practices for SIM card re-registration. Concerns are mounting about the timing of such an exercise, a few months before general elections are scheduled to be held and the intense pressure made to bear on card and mobile providers to execute ICTA’s directive. Civil society and Opposition suspect that the government’s intentions may not be clean and overboard, particularly as one Commissioner of the Lam Sham Leen drug report has denied that such a proposal emanated from their recommendations. Many human rights activists suspect government might be using this opportunity to establish a comprehensive biometric database, potentially for surveillance or tracking purposes in the upcoming elections and more generally through an intrusive connection to the Safe City CCTV intelligent surveillance system. Why was a parliamentary discussion not held and a bill passed rather than using the ICTA’s regulatory powers?

Legal challenges have been mounted against the SIM card re-registration process. Figures like Rama Valayden, Ivor Tan Yan and Pazhany Rangasamy have taken their grievances to the judiciary, questioning the legality and implications of collecting and storing biometric data. These efforts highlight the importance of upholding constitutional rights and ensuring transparency in government actions.

Moreover, the backdrop of previous electoral controversies and government initiatives exacerbates public distrust. Issues surrounding the use of computer rooms during elections and attempts to regulate social media have deepened the trust deficit between the government and the people. ICTA had previously on the trumped up purpose of protecting children from internet, proposed to mandatorily intercept all social media activity through a government housed facility, not the sort of proposal that gives credence to the Authority.

Moreover, the resistance against the re-registration of SIM cards in Mauritius echoes similar concerns about civil liberties and data privacy that have arisen in other countries facing similar initiatives.

It is noted that France has a quasi-judicial oversight of the use and storage of personal data of all citizens, the Commission Nationale Informatqiue et Libertes (CNIL). From its website, “Beyond raising awareness and sharing information on data protection culture, the CNIL has an advisory power, an onsite and offsite investigatory power as well as an administrative sanctioning power”. Many feel that both the CCTV surveillance systems and the biometric SIM card or National Identity card cannot be left in a legal “terrain vague” in Mauritius, without a strong legislation enabling judiciary oversight of their usage and protecting civil rights from Authorities intrusion.

In the Philippines, the government’s push for SIM card registration has also been met with resistance from civil liberties groups and privacy advocates. While the aim is to enhance national security and combat crime, there are concerns about the potential for abuse of personal data and surveillance by authorities. Similar to Mauritius, the mandatory inclusion of biometric data, such as fingerprint scans or facial recognition, raises questions about the extent of government surveillance and individual privacy rights.

In Turkey, SIM card registration has been required since 2006, ostensibly to combat terrorism and criminal activities. However, concerns have been raised about government surveillance and the potential for abuse of personal data. The government’s crackdown on dissent and opposition groups has heightened fears of surveillance and infringement on privacy rights.

In light of these global experiences, Mauritius’ resistance to SIM card re-registration reflects a broader global struggle for civil liberties and data privacy. The mandatory inclusion of biometric photos and the potential establishment of a comprehensive biometric database raise valid concerns about government surveillance and individual privacy rights.

In light of these concerns, many citizens are refusing to participate in the SIM card re-registration unless transparency and safeguards for data protection are guaranteed. To some, the potential misuse of collected data, particularly in upcoming elections, poses a significant threat to democratic processes. Without clear assurances regarding data processing, storage, and destruction, many citizens fear the manipulation of personal information for political gain.

The opposition to SIM card re-registration in Mauritius goes beyond mere technicalities—it reflects a broader struggle for civil liberties and democratic values. It is imperative for the government to address these concerns, uphold constitutional rights, and restore public trust through transparent and accountable governance.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 12 April 2024

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