NCC and Mobile Phone User Registration (2)
By Uche Ohia
There are many reasons why Nigerians should lend support to the plan of the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) to register pre-paid mobile users. Many countries of the world have taken similar action towards removing the veil of anonymity from this category of phone users. From an initial plan to prohibit, Brazil settled for registeration of pre-paid mobile phones as part of a package of measures to combat crime in Latin America ‘s biggest country. In Austria , the mobile phone identification scheme serves as the fulcrum of e-government. In Sweden, an open standard for secure electronic identification via mobile phones exists. Mobile phone subscribers in China are also required to register with their providers. Sri Lanka is one oif the countries that recently tightened mobile phone regulations by forcing service providers to maintain full details of phone users. In Japan , the law known as the “Act for the Prevention of Illegal Mobile Phone Use” requiring mobile telecommunications carriers to verify the identity of mobile phone users took effect on April 1, 2006. This Act requires mobile phone service operators to verify the identity of mobile phone users by examining a passport or driver’s license (or other valid form of identification) before the delivery of mobile phones – whether for sale or rental.
In addition to Germany , Italy and the UK , prepaid anonymous SIM cards have been banned in Slovenia and other countries. Closer home, the Kenyan Parliament is considering a new law to amend the Kenya Communications Act (1998) which will compel all subscribers to register their numbers using their national identity cards or passports in order to acquire a sim card. Similarly, the government of Tanzania has announced plans to register all mobile phone numbers in the country in a bid to curb the rising tide of mobile phone thsft and related crime. Under the proposal, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA), has been directed to constitute a national committee to work out a scheme for recording and logging all mobile phone numbers in that country.
The current thinking around the world appears to be that mobile phones should aid and not deter criminal investigators. In many countries it is now an accepted procedure in crime detection to track suspects through their mobile phones.In the EU the communications of every mobile telephone user are recorded. By tracking the whereabouts of the SIM card police are able to locate criminals. In the 2000 Omagh Bombing in the UK recordings of mobile phone conversations made on the day of the incident were crucial to the police investigation. It was calls made from a mobile phone by Hussain Osman, one of the key suspects in the failed suicide bombings in London on 21 July, 2005 that enabled Italian police to track Osman to his brother’s flat in Rome.
Similarly, the detection of the hiding place of Pablo Escobar, a notorious Columbian cocaine dealer, was facilitated by tracing his mobile phone activity. In all cases, the police worked with mobile phone providers to apprehend criminals. Last year, police in Kenya worked with Safaricom to apprehend Simon Matheri, a notorious criminal that terrorized residents of Gachie, a village near Nairobi.
Aside from prepaid phone registers, NCC has also announced a phone blocking scheme that will make it difficult to steal and use any handset. Indeed, with current technology, it is easy to follow a person via their mobile phone. Many companies have developed softwares that can do so. Even when a person changes his sim card as somemobile phone users often do, it is still possible to keep tabs on him. The reason is simple. Whenever a mobile phone connects to the mobile phone network, it identifies itself in two ways: the SIM card transmits it’s International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number which starts with the country code of the user followed by the network code and finally the telephone number; the handset itself transmits another number – the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number – which is a unique electronic serial number assigned to each handset which remains constant even if the SIM card is changed.
The IMEI number of any mobile handset can generally be ascertained by dialing star hash zero six hash (*#06#). With the IMEI number, it is possible for the telecom company to locate, track or immobilize a handset. If NCC compels mobile operators to transmit the IMEI number, detecting the location or user of a stolen mobile phone will become as easy as ABC. With these numbers and working in collaboration with telecom operators, it should not be hard for the police to detect or locate stolen handsets and criminals using phone lines anywhere in the country.
The major problem that will bedevil the eventual implementation of this initiative will be subscription fraud – that is, the supply of bogus or false identification information. With the breakneck competition for subscribers among operators, some unscrupulous dealers are likely to sell subscriptions without properly authenticating the buyer. And that is where the law comes in. A stiff penalty should be used to sanction both subscribers and dealers that sabotage the effort to unmask mobile phone subscribers. Again, rampant unlocking and re-programming of handsets should be discouraged. While ‘unlocking’ is a legal activity and involves the use of software on a computer or a machine called a flasher (electronic device used to remove information held in electronic circuits) to unlock the phone from a particular air time provider’s network, re-programming (more commonly known as “unblocking”) is an illegal activity through which unscrupulous individuals attempt to change the IMEI number or configuration to make it work again. Such practices should be the prerogative of the manufacturers.
Whatever, Nigerians have every reason to support the plan to register prepaid users because of the potential of the idea for enhancing national security and public safety. Stakeholders in the telecom sector must work together to create a standardized registration procedure so that mobile phones will cease to be weapons of harassment, embarrassment, and intimidation that they have recently become in Nigeria.