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India fighting fake SIMs despite facial recognition tools, new penalties

India fighting fake SIMs despite facial recognition tools, new penalties

India’s Telecom Department and police are fighting distribution of SIM cards that are obtained through fake documents and biometrics scams. The campaign has canceled 3 million fraudulent SIM cards so far, according to the government.

Indian man registers over 700 fake SIMs with his photo

Mumbai police reportedly have arrested 13 people and seized 2,197 SIM cards that had been registered using fake documents. One suspect, Abdul Hakeem Mansoori, reportedly using photos of his face, taken from different angles, to defeat the biometric deduplication and register 685 cards.

That scam was one of many discovered by the Department of Transportation after an analysis of 40 million Mumbai SIM cards found 8,500 of them were registered under just 62 names, the Free Press Journal reports.

Joint Commissioner of Police Satyanarayan Chaudhary told local media that biometrics typically are required to get a SIM card, but the policy was suspended during the pandemic. Vendors at that point started selling them to criminals for up to 600 Indian rupees (US$7.30).

Most of those arrested, including Mansoori, were alleged to be small-time identity criminals committing cyberfraud with the SIMs. Two other suspects had 378 and 190 SIM cards attached to their face biometrics.

The accused people obtained and activated SIMs by using forged Aadhaar and other identity documents, the police said. During the investigation, the police also found a fraudulent call center using 52 SIM cards.

According to authorities, there are up to 30,000 more fake SIM cards in operation in the city, which are currently being investigated. The SIM cards are used by fake call centers and in illegal betting and sex racketeering.

Indian authorities have been cracking down on the fraud with the help of a newly introduced biometric tool named “AI and facial recognition-powered Solution for Telecom SIM Subscriber VeRification” (ASTR).  Over the past three months, the government says it has used ASTR to block 835,000 SIM cards issued on fake IDs. A half-million were blocked last year.

The verification tool uses subscriber images provided by telecom vendors to detect duplicate card registrations.

Questions about privacy of facial recognition checks used for SIM cards

Local media, however, have questioned whether the ASTR tool is getting users’ consent or informing them what happens to data collected.

After the DoT failed to provide information on data safety and retention rules for ASTR, local media outlet MediaNama filed a public information request for contract details.

The DoT refused the request, stating that ASTR records contain confidential personal information of subscribers. According to the report, however, contract documents do not contain personal information.

Indian citizens have largely been kept in the dark about the processing of their facial data raising privacy concerns, MediaNama says.

Telecom officials pushing stricter penalties for SIM fraud

Meanwhile, the DoT says it plans to fine retailers selling fraudulently obtained SIM cards up to 200,000 rupees (around $2,430) per card. Misuse of SIMs could result in imprisonment.

The rules will be introduced soon, according to officials, in the upcoming Telecom Bill.

According to the proposed rules, retailers will be able to legally sell SIM cards to customers only after obtaining proper KYC documentation about buyers. In addition, SIM card sellers will need to register a single ID with all telecom operators and to verify themselves each time they sell a card, the Financial Express reports.

Also, the number of cards issued on a single ID will be cut from nine to four.

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