Pakistan’s cellphone-registration policy will do little to curb terrorism

(AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
(AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
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Following the Dec. 2014 terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar, which killed 133 children, the Pakistani government has announced a number of national measures to fight terrorism in the country. While over 56,000 Pakistanis have been killed in terrorist-related violence since 2003, the measures introduced by the government late last year are some of the most focused actions yet in the attempt to make the country safer.

Amongst the newly announced policies is the requirement that all Pakistanis with a cellphone register their SIM cards, as well as their fingerprints, with a government agency. Pakistanis have until Apr. 13 to complete this registration, or they will automatically forfeit cellphone service.

While the government should be commended for its efforts curbing terrorism in the country, there are myriad policies that would be more effective than compulsory SIM registration.

The benefits of SIM registration for national-security purposes are dubious, at best. A 2013 study conducted by Groupe Spéciale Mobile (GSM) found that there was “no empirical evidence to indicate that mandating registration of prepaid SIM users led to a reduction in criminal activities.” Further, the same study found that the absence of a registration system did not indicate a greater risk of criminal or terrorist activities. Countries such as Mexico, which instituted a registration requirement in 2009 only to repeal it three years later, have found that such programs fall short of their objectives, and are having little to no impact on reduction of violence.

How exactly the Pakistani government plans to use the data from the registrations is also unclear—few details about the specifics of the program have been shared with the public, the gist of the initiative being framed instead in broad, elusive terms. Not only is the effectiveness of such a program highly questionable, but also are its specific motives.

Having more clarity around the specific components of the program would help ease privacy concerns. Pakistan is, as previously mentioned, not the first country to require SIM card registration, nor is it the first to mandate biometric record-keeping. But no other country in the world has the shadowy history of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency, and its equally infamous military command.

Most of Pakistan’s existence has been under military rule, and only recently has it pivoted towards greater civilian political participation and authority. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s intelligence agency remains powerful, and has been a central player in the proliferation of terrorism in the region. The agency has backed militant groups in the disputed Kashmir region straddling the border between India and Pakistan, was allegedly implicated in the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 164 people, and even supported the Taliban up until 9/11. Knowing this, would the ISI use the new data to thwart extremism, or to help it flourish? To support democracy, or weed out political opposition?

The ISI is, after all, quite known for targeting individuals and groups within Pakistan that speak against it. Last year, the agency was accused in the attempted murder of Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, and has also been linked to the 2011 murder of Saleem Shahzad, a correspondent who was investigating links between the military and al-Qaeda. Amnesty International has found that “no state actor is more feared by journalists than the ISI.”

Despite recent democratic progress in Pakistan, the ISI remains firmly in a position of intimidating power. It is completely conceivable, and likely, that the agency would have access to the biometric registration data—a frightening prospect considering its history of human-rights violations.

So while the benefits of the registration program are murky, the costs are quite clear. Privacy and security risks aside, there are real financial detriments to getting this program up and running. Retailers and telecom companies are finding it difficult to comply with the new rules in such a short time period, and many have threatened to pull out of the verification process all together. Foreign investment in the telecom industry, which has been on the decline for several years, is just now starting to rebound. The third quarter of 2014 enjoyed a $109 million increase in telecom FDI, compared to an outflow of $101 million during the same period last year. By adding more hurdles and requirements for telecom companies who control nearly 40% of the mobile market, there is a real risk that the new law could deter further growth.

Compliance with the law is a challenge for ordinary citizens as well, especially those in rural areas where access to the retailers conducting registration is difficult. Millions of Pakistanis are at risk of losing their mobile services when the Apr. 13 deadline passes—there are still nearly 50 million SIMs that need to be verified with only about a month to go.

This is a daunting exercise for Pakistan—one where the outcome is far from certain. If the government wants to effectively fight terrorism in the country, then it should focus its efforts on doing exactly that. The military’s current operations in North Waziristan, which began this past June in an effort to uproot terrorist organizations, has made significant strides over the past few months, and is a major step in the right direction. In addition to fighting terrorist organizations, the government also needs to focus on cleaning up its own institutions, and ridding the military and ISI of agents that are sympathetic to extremist groups.

But Pakistan is also country where known terrorists openly walk free, as is the case of Hafiz Saeed, who lives unhindered in Lahore. Saeed, who is on the US State Department’s terror watch-list, is the founder of Lakshar-e-Taiba, the organization responsible for the Mumbai attacks, and is known to have close ties to the Pakistani military. If the government wants to show its seriousness in fighting terrorism, clamping down on individuals like Saeed would be a more sensible route.

Unfortunately for Pakistanis, their government has chosen against this option, instead requiring biometric SIM registration of over 100 million people—a program with a minimal chance of success that sets a chilling precedent.