All mobile phone users in Uganda will need to register their SIM cards with the government to keep in line with new legislation that aims to make it easier to track phones and combat crime.
From March 2012, all new mobile SIM cards will have to be registered before they can be activated. People with existing SIMs will be asked to register them over the next 12 months, following the enactment of the Interception of Communication Act. If they fail to do so, they will be deactivated.
Users will need to show identification documents such as a passport, driver's licence or local council card in order to register their SIM. At the time of registration, they will also have their photo and fingerprints taken. Each time someone buys a new SIM, it will also have to be registered.
The initiative is aimed at fighting crime in East Africa. Uganda does not have a national identity database of its citizens and the government believes that this initiative is necessary to "protect the interests of those who are victims and potential victims of those who abuse the privilege of telecommunications".
The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) argues that because mobile technology is used for financial transactions as well as communication that it has become a tool to perpetrate crime. It argues that unregistered SIM cards are used by criminals ranging from kidnappers to terrorists. It says on its website:
"It is the anonymous nature of the unregistered SIM card that kidnappers are able to ply their trade. It is how extortionists are able to get away with their deed. Text scams flourish in such an environment. Terrorists, insurgents and enemies of the state and society hide behind untraceable numbers. Rumour mongers use it to sow confusion, spread malicious information or start hoaxes."
The initiative is sure to raise privacy concerns, but the ICT argues that "the only person who should be afraid of SIM registration is the criminally-minded".
Uganda is now the third East African country after Tanzania and Kenya to force people to register their SIM cards in this way. The countries are falling in line under an umbrella body called the East Africa Communications Organisation (which also includes Rwanda and Burundi) that set a deadline of mid 2012 to get all SIM cards registered.
The regulatory body, the Uganda Communications Commission, has assured mobile users that the registration process won't be burdensome. Telecommunications providers including MTN, Airtel, Warid, Orange, UTL, Smiles and I-telecom have been instructed to make it as simple as possible.