Telcos should not resell inactive lines, murder convict tells court

SIM cards. Erastus Ngura Odhiambo argues mobile phone numbers can’t be transferred. [Courtesy]

Have you made a call to a mobile phone number of a deceased relative or friend and got a shock after it was picked up?

Some Kenyans take their complaints to the social media after telecommunication companies re-sell mobile phone lines that have been inactive for at least two months.

Does mobile service providers have a right to re-sell a line once they have sold it? Does the line belong to the purchaser or is it a property of the telcos?

These are the questions asked in a landmark case filed at the High Court by Erastus Ngura Odhiambo.

The murder convict argues that just as one’s national identification card, a mobile number is unique to each person, and companies have no right to re-sell the line.

According to him, a phone number is a person’s digital identity, which cannot be transferred to another person.

Ngura argues that a resold line could be used to register emails, bank details and access government services.

For prisoners, he states, their digital footprints are immediately deleted after the prisons authorities confiscate the mobile phones.

“When one is convicted, with the result being a custodial sentence, he or she automatically becomes digitally dead as Kenya Prisons Service do not allow prisoners to possess personal phones or digital devices within the prisons,” he says.

According to him, the lines hold critical information and data, which is lost after transfer to another person.

“My registered phone number was registered in many other institutions, including banks, social organisations, Kenya Revenue Authority, insurance and several others and whose update and sensitive information are posted to that number, which is in the hands of a third party thus breaching the right to privacy and protection of my data,” he argues.

Communications Authority data indicates that Kenya has at least 65 million SIM cards registration. In 2022, the authority came up with regulations limiting the number of SIM cards one can own to 10.

Shot dead

Ngura was a businessman before he was jailed seven years ago after being found guilty of murdering his girlfriend in Nairobi’s Buruburu Phase 5. He was sentenced to serve 20 years. The man pulled his girlfriend, lawyer Linda Wanjiku Irungu, out of her car and shot her dead at Waihura Court in December, 2014.

High Court judge Stella Mutuku found that there was enough evidence to prove that Ngura committed the offence. The judge said the gun recovered from the suspect was the same that was used to kill Wanjiku.

Ngura was found guilty of multiple charges; having unlicensed firearm and being in possession of a gun that was used in the murder.

In his case filed yesterday, the convict states that the world has transitioned to digital era.

Ngura is of the view that prisoners should be allowed to access the world through their digital identities, that is the registered SIM cards.

“I am approaching this court in my own interest and other serving prisoners who are denied right to digital identity and right to communicate. The defective prison policies prevent prisoners from maintaining their dedicated phones contravene the constitution,” says Ngura.

The prisoner claims that he does not know what is happening to his children and is unable to get updates about his businesses.

“In Kenya, digital identity has been widely accepted in form of mobile identity where institutions of interest verify the identity of their clients through one time password (OTP), or One Time call (OTC) sent through SMS to the clients registered mobile numbers. The physical human being is no longer necessary to complete transactions,” he said.