Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Kenya: Govt has ordered a register of mobile phone customers, but this must be reconciled with privacy of customers

[daily nation] The government's order for a database for all mobile phone subscribers might be regrettable if viewed to be rolling back the remarkable freedoms Kenyans enjoy in regard to telephone ownership and communications.

There are few other places in the world where mobiles phones are so widely available at such friendly prices; and to cap it all, where lines from any of the networks are available for virtually free even from roadside kiosks and hawkers will be activated instantly with no bureaucracy on the identity of the subscriber.

But sometimes, the public good must override some freedoms. There is no doubt that lack of records on subscribers has provided the gateway for criminals to enjoy the luxury of anonymous communications.

Kidnappers, extortionists, murderers and even terrorists have been freely using our telecommunications, secure in the knowledge that there is no record of the telephone lines they can acquire, use for a short time in commission of a crime, and discard immediately.

Misuse of those facilities has provided additional headaches for criminal and security intelligence systems rendered unable to monitor suspects or run investigations as effectively as they would like to.

To that extent the decision for a national database is understandable. But there must be some trade-offs. First, the transition to national registration must be managed to ensure minimal inconvenience and disruption.

New subscribers can be required to register even from today with a copy of their identity cards. But if six months is too short to register millions of existing subscribers, then there should be an extension to avoid unnecessary queues.

Secondly, and most important, there must be cast-iron guarantees that the database to be built will not be open to misuse by the authorities or any other entities.

Presently, laws meant to safeguard rights to privacy are extremely lax. The police and the security intelligence organs have had the freedom to tap into telephone conversations, intercept and open mail and hack into e-mail accounts without as much as a court order.

Sometimes the information acquired has been abused, even for criminal or political purposes. Thus it becomes doubly important that laws guaranteeing the right to privacy and the sanctity of personal and private communications are strengthened and those guarantees entrenched in the Constitution.

Mobile Phone Register Must Respect Privacy

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