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Regulator lacks motive, tools to tap private calls

By Mercy Wanjau | May 1st 2020

Last week’s Standard on Sunday article on the Court of Appeal decision overturning a High Court judgement that had stopped the implementation of a tool for curbing the use of counterfeit devices on mobile networks has sparked public debate and elicited a wide array of interpretations.  

The article, under the banner “State gets greenlight to tap private phone calls”, created the false impression that the court had given the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) the go-ahead to implement a system that would snoop on private conversations of mobile phone subscribers. This is not the case.

Left unclarified, the noble objectives that the CA sought to achieve by implementing the Device Management System (DMS) could be lost on Kenyans.

What is the DMS and why is it being implemented?

The DMS is a system that is meant to manage entry of devices into the country and prevent illegal communication devices from accessing mobile telecommunications services. The illegal devices in question include SIM-boxes, counterfeit, sub-standard, non-type approved and stolen mobile handsets.

The DMS contains a database (a whitelist) of all type-approved devices that uniquely identifies each device. Once deployed, the DMS shall facilitate denial of service to all illegal and non type-approved communications devices.

The system has capability to isolate and deny services to the illegal devices as criminals may misuse them to perpetrate crime.  

It is important to note that the ICT sector law only allows type-approved and genuine mobile telecommunications equipment to be used in the country.

To work seamlessly, all local mobile operators will be required to connect to the DMS and ensure that blacklisted devices do not access services. As the CA has pointed out time and again, the system does not access subscribers' personal information details, and therefore cannot access personal data as claimed by those opposed to its deployment.

To protect the consumer at the point of purchase, the system will be configured to allow mobile phone buyers to verify whether the ICT device they intend to purchase is genuine or not. This will be done through sending the preferred handset’s unique identification number, otherwise known as the IMEI, to a specified short code.

The proliferation of non type-approved and counterfeit devices, often illegally imported, presents a serious challenge to mobile networks and subscribers. Besides degrading the overall quality of mobile services available to users, counterfeit handsets do not offer value for money as they are more often than not substandard and therefore have a shorter lifespan.

Risk of radiation

By virtue of failing to meet the basic prescribed technical specifications and standards, counterfeit mobile phones tend to emit unacceptably higher levels of radiation, posing health risks to users. Some counterfeits also come with substandard batteries that are susceptible to overheating and may often explode on users.

What’s more, counterfeit devices pose major security and safety risks, as they do not come with a unique IMEI or identification number. In some cases, they use non-standard IMEI formats or replicate the unique identification numbers of other handsets. 

A number of users have been wrongly arrested for crimes committed by other persons using mobile handsets with a similar IMEI. Replication of IMEIs also presents unnecessary challenges to law enforcement agencies in tracking down individuals who misuse phones for criminal purposes.

It is important to note that attempts by East African countries to implement Equipment Identification Registers to curb the resale of stolen handsets within their national borders has been frustrated by dumping of reprogrammed devices from neighbouring countries. To address this challenge, countries in the region resolved to implement a system that would deny service to stolen handsets across the region.

The implementation of this system is also intended to meet the requirements of the East African region under the Northern Corridor Integration Project Heads of State Summit, which directed each member State to deploy systems that curb the illegal by-passing and termination of telecommunications traffic within the context of the ‘one network area’.

Once implemented, the system will deal a deathblow to the thriving local black market of stolen handsets, and control illegal termination of traffic, also known as SIM-boxing.  

It is noteworthy that the CA is not an intelligence entity, and has no interest in or capacity to tap people’s telephone conversations. The CA is a responsible corporate citizen that respects and upholds the constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy.

As directed by the courts, the CA will now move with speed to continue public consultation with the industry and other stakeholders on the best way to deploy the system in order to ensure Kenyans accrue the aforecited benefits.

Other agencies that the authority has been engaging on this matter include the Anti-Counterfeit Agency, Kenya Revenue Authority, National Police Service and Kenya Bureau of Standards.

The authority remains committed to its mandate of protecting the interests of ICT consumers, and the deployment of this system is a clear testimony of this fact. Prior to deploying the system, the authority is planning to roll out consumer awareness focusing on its scope and impact.

I wish to assure the public that the authority remains committed to effective regulation of the sector and protection of their interests in order to maintain confidence in the use of ICT services in the country.

Mercy Wanjau is the acting Director General of the Communications Authority of Kenya

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