Since a renewed directive from the Gambia government was announced recently, scare has somehow engulfed a great number of GSM subscribers, who are apprehensive about giving their personal details to GSM operators to obtain SIM card.
The Gambia government has issued a directive calling on all GSM operators in the country to register the personal details of any person who wants to purchase a SIM card from them, as well as get all unregistered subscribers (more than 800,000 sim cards in use) to turn in their personal details for registration with their respective GSM operators within a limited space of time in the second quarter of this year.
Failing to adhere to this directive as soon as possible would result in getting operators’ corporate licence revoked, a statement from the government has said. The registration of SIM cards is mandatory because “it is vital to preserving the country’s security,” President Yahya Jammeh says.
Since it was announced and advertised in the newspapers, the directive has sparked fears and created mixed feelings among the country’s growing population of cell phone subscribers who now comprise users of ages as low as 10. While some subscribers have welcomed the recently enforced directive, a greater proportion of users are reluctant to come to terms with the new development, calling it a new wave of “security measures” that would expose subscribers to the strategy of playing into the hands of the powers-that-be, a situation they say may force them to forego the use of cell phones, something which will dent greatly the revenue and income of GSM companies in the country and, by extension, the revenue base of the government’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) as well as the livelihood of individuals and micro-enterprises directly and indirectly connected to the economies of the GSM operators.
A joint statement from the Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure and the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA), the body mandated to regulate the activities of GSM operators, says the SIM card registration exercise is aimed at safeguarding the general public’s welfare and security.
SIM card registration would entail recording and verifying personal details of subscribers by a GSM service provider. “Such details shall include the phone number(s), names, date of birth, gender, address, alternative telephone contacts, if available, and the number of the Identification document used [by an individual],” the statement says.
Although PURA has promised GSM companies that it would keep information on personal details of subscribers secure, confidential and un-tampered with, many subscribers are edgy about the security of their details. “It’s my right as a consumer of your service to know where you are going to store my details,” a high school teacher, Musa Njie, underscored. “Just as I am giving you money I also have the right to demand from you what method you are taking to protect me.”
According to the new executive directive, any person purchasing SIM card should presents one of the following national identification documents: biometric ID card, national ID card, national passport, voter’s card, alkalo/seyfo certificate, resident’s permit and birth certificate.
“These documents contain my personal information, my details. Where are they going to store it; Will my privacy be protected? Some of these things need to be clear to the people, because you are taking my money and on top of that you want my personal details: I am not going to give any detail until and unless the GSM companies publish their privacy statement, because as consumers we have a right to privacy,” Ousman Fajato, a researcher, said.
However, PURA’s statement assures the general public that the information collected “shall not be disclosed to any person unless as required by the law.” It also says the information shall only the used for the purpose for which the registration exercise is being undertaken.
GSM operators’ stance
Even though there are indications that the GSM companies are concerned that the rigid condition of SIM card registration may put a damper on subscriber growth that would lead to a decline in revenue, many of them are reluctant to comment on the issue. Their recent press releases in the newspapers, however, call on subscribers to fully comply with the government directive.
“This is an executive directive and I don’t have anything to say other than to comply; we have all heard the president talking about it,” Africell’s director of sales and public relations, Papa Leigh, said.
Africell has arguably the biggest share of the GSM subscriber market in The Gambia, with hundreds of thousands of its sim cards being used by unregistered subscribers across the country, a similar situation being faced with by the country’s other GSM operators such as Gamcel, Comium and QCell.
Anam Jah, QCell’s senior manager of sales and marketing, said that even though the directive is good for security reasons, “my worry is that not many people have an ID document [to be properly registered]”.
Nevertheless, in addition to their recent adverts, GSM companies have been sending text messages to customers asking for their names, addresses and ID numbers to get subscribers unaccounted for registered. Customers are expected to furnish GSM companies with the required details through special numbers designated by the various networks.
“I received a text from Africell that I should send them my names, address and ID number, I have never replied, because I don’t really know why they want my details and how secured is it going to be,” Lamin Dukureh, a businessman in Serekunda, said.
Ousman Badjie, a taxi driver, had this to say: “I have replied since the very day they sent me the text, but I fooled them because I gave them wrong details.”
A statistician who prefers to be anonymous also said: “This is to show that there bound to be lots of bad data in the data collection. So if you have good and bad data, all mixed together, do you really have data. I am trained as a statistician and I know the value of good data; any analysis you make you have to start with the collection of good data, and without such data your analysis will be completely unfounded.”
A roadside seller of SIM cards said that since the introduction of the executive directive, she hardly sells five SIM cards a day. “People are not willing to give their details when they want to buy the SIM card,” she said, adding that the directive has hampered business for them and adversely affected their livelihood.
Another challenged faced by sim card hawkers is that most of them are semi-illiterate (if at all literate a bit) and are therefore unable to register the details of people who buy sim cards from them, especially those selling in the provinces.
All these intricacies put together would greatly compound the challenge of registering SIM cards as well as affect the growth of the mobile phone market in the country, as people shy away from using SIMS cards because of the renewed directive.
While income and revenue of GSM operators and regulatory authorities would be seriously affected, the commissions and earnings directly or indirectly derived from GSM companies by individuals and businesses dealing with them would be acutely slashed.
Research has shown that SIM cards registration in most African countries now affect the exponential growth of the mobile phone market in those economies.
In West Africa, for example, Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal are among the countries that have tried to implement a similar order but are still finding it very difficult to accomplish the objective.