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Zimbabwe threatening privacy rights with new SIM registration database

The Zimbabwean government extended its reach into the private lives of its citizens this week by promulgating a new law establishing a central database of information about all mobile telephone users in the country. The Statutory Instrument 142 of 2013 on Postal and Telecommunications (Subscriber Registration) Regulations 2013, gazetted last Friday, raises new challenges to the already embattled rights to privacy and free expression in Zimbabwe, increasing the potential that the repressive state will spy on its citizens and further clamp down on free speech.

The approval of the Statutory Instrument clearly shows a disregard for the rights to privacy and free expression protected by the new Zimbabwean constitution. Mandatory SIM card registration eradicates the potential for anonymity of communications, enables location-tracking, and simplifies communications surveillance and interception.

The law is clearly designed to facilitate greater State surveillance, given that it is subordinate legislation that was passed on the basis of powers granted the Interception of Communications Act. According to the Statutory Instrument, telecommunications providers must each establish a subscriber database of all SIM card holders, connecting their phone number to their name, address, gender, nationality and passport or ID number. The law obliges service providers to regularly hand over copies of this data to the government, which will then establish its own central subscriber information database. Access to the database will be available for the purpose of law enforcement, upon the written request of a law enforcement agent, or for “safeguarding national security”, as well as for “undertaking approved educational and research purposes.”

Service providers must keep data for five years after the customer has concluded their contract. Individuals must report the loss of their SIM card or phone, and any change in ownership of their SIM card, and the provision of false information to a telco makes an individual liable for six months imprisonment.

By facilitating the establishment of an extensive database of sensitive user information, it places individuals at risk of being tracked or target, and poses risks against the misuse of private information. In the absence of comprehensive data protection legislation and judicial oversight, SIM users' information can be shared with government departments and matched with other private and public databases, enabling the State to create comprehensive profiles of individual citizens. An individual's phone number could potentially be matched with their voting preferences or health data, enabling governments to identify and target political opposition, for example, or people living with HIV/AIDs. The potential for misuse of such information, particularly in countries with traditions of ethnic conflict and in situations of political instability and unrest, is enormous.

SIM registration can also have discriminatory effects - the poorest individuals (many of whom already find themselves disadvantaged by or excluded from the spread of mobile technology) are often unable to buy or register SIM cards because they don't have identification documents. Undocumented migrants are similarly disadvantaged. When mobile phones are the most common form of accessing important avenues such as banking and finance, this could result in exclusion from numerous vital public services. In addition, given the additional burdens that SIM registration places on telcos, this may result in additional costs being passed on to a customer.

Importantly, the justifications commonly given for SIM registration – that it will assist in reducing the abuse of telecommunications services for the purpose of criminal and fraudulent activity – are unfounded. SIM registration has not been effective in curbing crime, and instead has fueled it: States which have adopted SIM card registration have seen the growth of identity-related crime, and have witnessed black markets quickly pop up to service those wishing to remain anonymous (for example, Saudi Arabia) SIMs can be illicitly cloned, or criminals can use foreign SIMs on roaming mode, or internet and satellite telephony, to circumvent SIM registration requirements.

Because of its ineffectiveness and exclusionary impacts, SIM registration has been rejected after consultation in Canada, Czech Repulic, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands and Poland. Yet almost all African states have now adopted SIM card registration mandates.

A number of civil society actors have already spoken out against the move by the Zimbabwean government to join its African peers in mandating SIM registration, although most of them have chosen to remain anonymous. Indeed, dissent coming out of Zimbabwe has often been mounted under the important veil of anonymity, demonstrating the current state of free speech in the country. This law will only further eradicate democratic debate and the enjoyment of constitutional protections in the country.

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