By Bob G. Kisiki
The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has lately issued a number of directives and bans, in an effort to streamline use of mobile telephones and also curb cybercrime. Most notable among the recent regulations is the requirement that phone dealers sell only genuine phone handsets. This law also prohibits the hawking and vending of phones, leaving sale of handsets to only certified dealers. The other law that was recently issued phases out the sale and use of scratch airtime cards. Telecom companies were sternly instructed to sell and issue only electronic airtime. The other is the one that bans automatic issuance of replacement of SIM cards, in case one loses theirs.
Taken in the round, these are laudable measures meant to safeguard users of telecom services against being cheated, say when they’re sold fake phones; as well as against the ever-increasing insecurity that has hit Uganda in recent times. By making it difficult to acquire a SIM card, for instance, crooks who have been using multiple phone numbers and several handsets in committing crime, so that they elude tracing by law enforcers, will be checked. It is hoped that this move will make it harder for people to abuse phone use to commit crime. The ban on sale of fake phones is a good move for security, as the International Mobile Identification code of a genuine phone, can easily be traced, making it easy to follow up perpetrators of cybercrime. UCC spokesperson Fred Otunu was recently quoted in the mainstream media saying that the commission had already set up a Centralised Equipment Identity Register system to automatically monitor and oversee mobile phones in both public and private sectors. “The fake phones do not only contravene the law, but are a security threat, because they have no clear identification by serial numbers,” Godfrey Mutabazi, the UCC executive director, was quoted saying. Consequently, all telecom companies have been directed to acquire and install card readers at their respective service centres, to validate national identification information before the activation of a new SIM card.
This information is instantly verified electronically against the national database maintained by the National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA). The truth of the matter is that deploying an equipment identity register and verifying one’s registration and identification information from NIRA can be helpful to operators in protecting their networks and revenues against the use of stolen and unauthorised devices. It helps the telecom companies to offer better security services to their clients. However, merely asking telecom companies to effect these measures might not be the solution.
Great laws and regulations need a concerted, elaborate enforcement system that will render the laws effective and useful. As it is, Uganda has a poor record of following up on the very beautiful laws it comes up with in response to the different problems and situations that have faced her over the years. This is partly due to the fact that most of the laws come up in response to situations that have run out of hand, like the recent spate of cybercrime involving thefts, kidnaps followed up with murders and other such crimes. Hardly ever are government agencies and security organs pre-emptive and proactive in their approaches.
The law banning the sale of SIM cards on the streets came into effect after the gruesome murder of Susan Magara, whose kidnappers and, ultimately, murderers had used several phones and SIM cards to call her family, each time disposing off the phone and card immediately after making a call. That ensured that they could not be traced at all. And a lot of the time, once the law enforcers realise some perceived success in the fight against whatever crisis they’re trying to solve, they hang up their gloves and, ultimately, allow the perpetrators of crime to regroup, reorganise and re-launch their attacks. And, the cycle continues, ad infinitum.
It has also been said in the past that people who commit cybercrime (just like any other crime, like the wanton murders that have persisted in our midst) have godfathers they collude with in high places. The professional criminals either get technical help from people in places that have the power to crack codes and issue the required gadgets to commit the crime, or when the crooks are apprehended, they have ways of reaching key offices, where word will come from ordering lower officers to let the apprehended people go. With such a scenario, law enforcers become de-motivated, while the criminals enjoy a shot in the arm, as they know their (untouchable) godfathers will always be there to protect them.
But even where the criminals have no godfathers, they have mostly operated with free reign. Criminals are not fools, too. They know and understand the Ugandan systems only too well, so they seem to always be ahead of them. Even before UCC came up with these measures, many wrong people had acquired multiple SIM cards and handsets, which they use to commit crime. The SIM cards are properly and officially registered, so even when checked, no red lights will go off. The other mountain that is bound to stand in the way of enforcement of these regulations is the fact that some goons, again with collusion of insiders in telecom companies, have acquired duplicate SIM cards of people who got them (registered) genuinely. When they commit crime using these cards, it is not them (the criminals) whom the law will go after, but the people who registered the cards. This does not only abet crime; it endangers the law-abiding citizens who registered their SIM cards as directed by government, but whose cards have been duplicated by criminal-minded people in the system.
Notably, when cybercrime perpetrators are apprehended, a lot of the time, they are either not prosecuted or, when they indeed are prosecuted, poor investigative methods make it difficult for the prosecutors to pin the crimes on the suspects. Ultimately, they are set free, only to go back and resume from where they had stopped. Therefore, coming up with laws is not a solution to avert crimes; the enforcement of these laws is only feasible, so that criminals and their godfathers (who are also criminals, because accessory to crime is commission of that crime) know that it will cost them heavily if they do not abort the vices.
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