Activists continue to advise Government on right to Privacy and SIM Card registration.
By Solomon Lubambula
Even with a few days left for the SIM card registration deadline, Human Rights Activists in Uganda insist that there is need for the defense of people’s right to privacy that is threatened by the seemly innocent program.
The civil society groups say that the 31st May 2013 SIM Card registration comes with threats of de-activating SIM Cards, and other frustrations of Human Rights. Human Rights Defenders, The Unwanted Witness talked to; continue to criticize what should have been a vital exercise, saying it threatens the fundamental Right to Privacy.
The registration of SIM cards started in March 2012 after the passing of the Interception of Communications Act 2010 which required compulsory registration of all cards. The exercise was expected to end on the 28th of February this year but an additional 90 days were provided as an extension to allow the 9.6 million mobile phone users that had been left out also comply with the regulation.
This extension came at a time when the Human Rights Network for Journalists had also filed a legal suit challenging the legality of the whole exercise.
In an interview with the Unwanted Witness, Human Rights Defender and lawyer Mohammed Ndifuna insist that the SIM Card Registration still threatens the fundamental Right to Privacy even when the communication regulators (UCC) extended the registration period for another 3 months.
Mohammed Ndifuna also the Executive Director Human Rights Network Uganda believes that whereas the intention of SIM Card Registration is good, there are no legal guarantees that the Information collected from the public will be solely used for purposes of identification.
Ndifuna says although the security reasons put forward by government for the process are valid, there is no clear safeguards for people’s data collected by the private Telecom companies.
His argument is based on the fact that lack of the Data Management law in a country where such sensitive information can be accessed at a small fee, poses serious implications on human rights.
“We don’t have a collateral law that compels those who manage private information to handle it in such a manner to remain private, in other countries what exist is the Private Data Management Act now in our case we do not have that, so essentially it makes this area very open to possibilities of violations of the right to privacy”-Ndifuna.
The seemingly concerned human rights defender adds that personal information is very sensitive and if improperly used, it can put the lives and even the property of the subscribers at peril.
The Activists put it clear that they are not up in arms against this exercise but they strongly believe that alongside this requirement, there should be a law that compels the telecommunication companies or any other their agencies in possession to this information to ensure that the right to privacy is guaranteed as enshrined in the constitution.
Human Rights Defenders say that their borne of contention is that under the existing law there is no sufficient guarantees yet in this country.
“in this country, we have malicious individuals that use information of private nature to malign or even commit crimes so we are bothered by the lacuna that exists”-Ndifuna explains.
The right to privacy is a guaranteed protected right under the constitution and anything that is likely to undermine it should be watched very careful, and Ugandans citizens should demand for guarantees even as the country try to match the protection of the right to privacy and the security concerns, the two must be balanced.
To all intents and purposes government needs to take this as a very serious matter and expedite any interventions to ensure that the right to privacy is not undermined.
At the inception of the SIM Card registration, government has always given security concerns as the major reason behind the whole exercise.
Among the objectives of the Ministry of Security which designated UCC to oversee the implementation the requirement for SIM Card registration is to help law enforcement agencies to identify mobile phone owners and track criminals who use the phones for illegal activities.
The example of the Kyadondo and Kabalagala bombings in July 2011 is always given as a clear incident that was coordinated via mobile phone communications. Although the issue of protecting the populace would be convincing enough, still activists have reservations about this exercise.
Ndifuna notes that even as we talk about National Security, it should be a guarded terrain. It should not be an area where people violate rights. He stresses that the security concerns must be addressed within the law.
We are just blowing the whistle that there exists a lacuna and notwithstanding the good intentions to use SIM Card Registration to facilitate crime prevention and management, this arrangement is bound to be abused.
Ndifuna says that processes have been abused in this country; we know that in these private companies already they are potentially abusing this right to privacy.
He further points out that the ordinary information that is supposed to be accessed through court order is being accessed at payment of few coins.
He warns that in the absence of the law that is comprehensive enough to protect citizens it would not be wise for the country to simply walk into that terrain just on the basis of the fears that technology is going to be used to commit crimes.
“Yes crimes should be fought, yes crimes should be prevented, yes crimes should be managed but any framework institutional or legal that we put in place , should balance the intentions that we have with reasons and also with caution”-said Ndifuna
Now as the second deadline for SIM Card registration draws closer, Telecommunication companies have revived efforts of encouraging their subscribers to comply with this government requirement. The Telecommunication operators say that even with no law on Data protection the public should stay rest assured that their information tendered in under this exercise will be protected.
Explaining the Cash reward for subscribers who register their SIM Card, the Uganda Telecom SIM card Project Manager Peter kakaire says that the telecommunication companies operate on strict confidentiality regulations which uphold the right to privacy.
Just like his colleague from UTL, the Airtel Head of compliance M-commerce Argwings Koyoson says that as a sector player, Airtel has a legal obligation to register its subscribers. But in the same vein, Airtel is mandated to protect the customers’ information especially at a time when it has introduced Mobile Banking services in partnership with Banks. He says that the internal guidelines on customers’ confidentiality are paramount for the company as to avoid infringement of people’s right to privacy.