Africans are right to resist mobile SIM card registration

Mobile SIM registration tied to digital ID is leading to exclusion of marginalized communities and privacy concerns in the absence of sufficient legal protections, particularly in countries with a history if abuse by authorities. This is the opinion of Ridwan Oyede and Dr. Tony Roberts, both members from the African Digital Rights Network.

Many Nigerians have been blocked from making phone calls in the last few weeks because the government directed telecommunications providers that they disconnect their SIM cards. They had failed to comply with the directive by the government to register and link their SIM cards to their digital identity, the National Identity Number (NIN).

Most countries in Africa – 50 nations according to research by Privacy International – and around the world require SIM registration to identify the user.  However, Nigeria has gone further by requiring SIM cards to be registered and linked with a citizen’s digital ID, and therefore with the biometric data that it contains. Nigeria is not the only country that has this requirement: SIM registration must be linked to digital ID, including biometric data like fingerprints and facial images.

Many marginalized groups like migrant workers and ethnic minorities are excluded from such a registration policy. They don’t have the ID proof, such as birth certificates, that is needed to get a digital ID. This locks them out from obtaining a SIM – and therefore from mobile connectivity – and from government services that increasingly require mobile or internet service to access.

Secondly, SIM registration linked to digital ID is causing concerns about privacy rights – not only in Nigeria but also in Uganda, Zambia and Kenya – in the absence of sufficient legal safeguards to protect their data. Even more so if there is a history of abuse by authorities.

We believe that citizens have a right to be concerned based on our research at African Digital Rights Network. Linking digital IDs and mobile SIMs, and linking these with mobile banking apps and other digital services, is the “unholy trinity” of digital surveillance. When combined with further government or corporate data, this surveillance stack enables governments to track an individual’s real-time movements, transactions, email, voice and social media communications, providing a powerful infrastructure for state surveillance.

Digital surveillance

Digital identification is becoming an integral part of digital surveillance. The six African countriesWe found that governments made significant investments in surveillance technology, not just in SIM registration, but also in CCTV and encryption breaking, car licence plates and facial recognition systems. They also created laws forcing telecom companies to capture and store citizens’ communications for possible state use.

This fear was made worse in Nigeria when it was revealed that President Muhammadu Buhari allowed security agencies access to the NIN database. The government’s argument for mandatory registration of SIM cards linked to digital IDs hinges on security and allows governments to track criminality. There is no evidence to suggest that mandatory SIM registration reduces crime or helps in crime detection.

Everybody wants government to pursue the most serious criminals in order to stop mass atrocities. But citizens also want governments to respect and protect everyone’s right to privacy. Because surveillance is covert and there is a large power imbalance between the state’s power and those being watched, it is easy to abuse power. Our research on surveillance law in Africa reveals that surveillance is most often conducted on political opponents, business competitors, journalists, civil society activists, and low-level criminals. All these activities are against privacy rights.

It is also against the constitution of most African countries, including Nigeria, as well as international human rights conventions and domestic laws that protect privacy of communication. However, the privacy law is regularly broken by state branches, often with impunity and with no accountability.

Protecting citizens against data misuse and privacy rights abuses is possible with robust data protection laws. These laws provide for independent oversight bodies that have the resources, independence and power to monitor surveillance practices and hold governments accountable for any violations.

Citizens have the right of legal citizenship. They also have the right to government services, entitlements, and benefits. This shouldn’t be dependent on a biometric identification system that isolates the most vulnerable or allows repressive government to carry out mass surveillance.

Tony Roberts is a research associate at the Institute of Development Studies. He is also a member of African Digital Rights Network. Ridwan Oloyede, a Nigerian legal practitioner, researcher fellow, and consultant, is a member the African Digital Rights Network.

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