South Africans are facing wind, rain and the cold to queue and register their cell phone numbers before the cut-off date of June 30, 2011. Having been extended twice, the Department of Communications is adamant that it won’t extend the deadline – despite industry analysts warning that close to half a million users in the country will see a “service unavailable” message on their phones after 23:59, June 30.
South African citizens are mandated by the “RICA” Act (Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act) to ensure that their SIM cards (cell numbers) are duly registered – that they have provided positive identification (Identity Document) and proof of address (Municipal / Property Account).
Here’s the logic …
Various statements from the South African government punt this line (or something close to it): “Cell phones are used by criminals in the perpretation (!) of criminal activities. Therefore, the RICA Act sets out to ensure that each cell phone number is registered to a user that can be identified and located.” The RICA Act also places the burden squarely on the shoulders of Mobile Operators (Cell C, Virgin Mobile, MTN, Vodacom) to register their users on a national database.
At first, Mobile Operators baulked at this idea as being “expensive” and “impractical” but the state insisted: “You gave them these numbers, you must tell us which number belongs to whom.” On top of this, the Act required that Mobile Operators keep logs of ALL calls made and received via their networks. More administration, more cost, the operators barked.
Apart from the Mobile Operators protesting the cost and burden of administration and infrastructure, concerns have been raised by privacy groups about the potential abuse of the system – despite “safeguards” stipulated in the RICA Act. State agencies such as the South African Police Services (SAPS) and the South African National Intelligence Agency (NIA) are to approach a judge and present their case to support a request to access the information, the Act stipulates.
Yes, that’s all good and well, privacy right groups argued, but “How secure is the information on the side of business and/or government?”, it was asked. “Access to this (people’s private information) is against the law, and is covered by the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act, 2002“, responded the state.
I am not convinced that due to a small number of the population being involved in criminal activities, the whole country’s citizens should be “tagged” to a SIM Card (cell number). Being tracked in societies through your Identity Document (ID) Number and various other numbers such as your bank account number is already more than enough “information” with which to find “criminals”. Registering your SIM number is just another means for authorities to track citizens. By no means do I wish to underestimate or applaud the genius of (un)organised crime but since folklore has it that criminals are always two steps ahead of the law, a solution has already been found.
In the electronic age, it has become far too easy to access the information of large groups of people due to the negligence (or corruption?) of those responsible for protecting it. Just glance at some of the articles on http://epic.org/ as “food for thought”. The more information is gathered in one place, the denser the cloud of “data buzzards” circling it.