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Concerns about SIM registration with biometrics are genuine, digital rights activists argue

Concerns about SIM registration with biometrics are genuine, digital rights activists argue

Tony Roberts and Ridwan Oloyede, authors of an opinion article published by Thompson Reuters Foundation News, have argued that people have good reason to be worried over the trend in some countries, especially in Africa, requiring the registration of SIM cards with biometrics.

According to authors of the piece who are members of the African Digital Rights Network, SIM card registration with biometrics as seen in countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and Zambia, is a big disservice for groups of persons who do not have proof of ID documents such as birth certificates, to allow them secure a digital ID.

Apart from this, the authors also posit that such a practice endangers the data and privacy of citizen’s, especially in countries where there are no sufficient data protection safeguards and in those with a history of surveillance or rights abuses against their citizens.

They contend that while it is every citizen’s wish to have their government protect them against crime, citizens also are also right to be concerned about any move that seeks the collection of their biometric data, going by the outcome of a research study by the African Digital Rights Network and the Institute of Development Studies.

According to the study, linking SIMs to digital IDs, and then to digital banking apps and other digital services, emerges as an “unholy trinity” of digital surveillance, which can enable governments track the real-time movement of citizens or their communications.

The writers say they also found out in each of the six countries where their study was conducted that the governments are also busy investing in other state surveillance technologies such as public facial recognition systems. In some cases, they found the existence of laws that compel mobile network operators to track and store the communication of citizens for future possible use by the state, raising concerns about freedoms and individual safety.

In Nigeria, like in other countries, the practice of linking SIM cards with biometrics is in contravention of the constitution, international human rights conventions, well as domestic laws which protect privacy of communication, the authors argue.

Over the years, activists have raised concerns about the identification of SIM owners with their biometrics, especially as other countries on the continent such as South Africa have unveiled intentions to follow the trend.

“To protect citizens against abuses of their data and privacy rights, robust data protection and privacy laws are needed that provide for independent oversight bodies with the independence, resources and power to monitor surveillance practices, and hold governments and corporations accountable for any breaches. Citizens have a right to legal citizenship and to access government services and entitlements. This should not be contingent on a biometric ID system that locks out the most vulnerable, and enables repressive governments to conduct mass surveillance,” the authors conclude their opinion.

Considering the case of South Africa, an article by IOL highlights that the proposed regulation which seeks to tie biometric data to people’s SIM cards is clearly an invasion of privacy.

According to the article, the draft text, which was published last month by the country’s telecoms regulator, is currently available for public comments and this will be until May 11.

“On activation of a mobile number on its network, a licensee must ensure that it collects and links the biometric data of the subscriber to the number. A licensee must ensure that, at all times, it has the current biometric data of an assigned mobile number,” the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has said of the move.

Organizations and digital rights advocates are voicing concerns against the plan, saying it will be a terrible violation of citizens’ privacy. The question is essentially about how safely the biometric data to be collected will be stored by the telcos.

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