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Picture: 123RF/pumbitaurelio
Picture: 123RF/pumbitaurelio

The media recently covered the harrowing tale of the kidnapping of a Limpopo man, allegedly to coerce him to pay out the proceeds of a tender that had been invalidated by the courts. Critically, the records retrieved by the press included communications from unregistered SIM cards.

While suspects have been identified and charged, the inability to identify the users of the unregistered SIM cards raises important questions about whether all those involved in a potentially murderous plot will face justice. 

The incident also raises questions about the reliability of intercepted mobile communication data as part of the state’s fight against public sector corruption and fraud, alongside its efforts to reduce instances of untraceable criminal conduct.

The frequent absence of reliable data plays directly into the hands of those with nefarious intent. This highlights the need to ensure that when SIM cards are sold they are in a secure and sealed package. This is not the case now, thwarting the aims of the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act (Rica) framework.

The Rica Amendment Bill sits with the president awaiting his assent. The bill was initiated to deal with issues identified by the Constitutional Court relating to illegal surveillance. While this was right and necessary, parliament squandered the opportunity by only addressing the issues raised by the court.

This decision unfortunately has far-reaching implications for the effort to fight the crime and corruption that continue to plague the country and hinder the reforms we need to put SA on a better economic and social trajectory and address the perception of lawlessness.

In particular, parliament failed to take the opportunity to address the loopholes in Rica that enable the proliferation of unregistered SIM cards. There are no concrete figures on the scale of this problem, but public reports suggest that most of the 150-million SIM cards distributed in SA every year are not properly registered in accordance with the requirements of Rica.

In the most egregious cases, this practice culminates in the practice of selling “pre-Rica’ed” SIM cards, registered in advance in the name of someone other than the SIM card buyer. The effect of these practices is to enable the untraceable communications often relied on by criminals.

It is both disappointing and encouraging that the loopholes in Rica are not too difficult or costly to address. By providing more specificity as to the packaging requirements for SIM cards, among other details, parliament can close the gap between what the intention of Rica was and what has become standard practice in the industry.

Notably, there is growing consensus within the telecommunications sector that the churn of SIM cards owing to the Rica loopholes does not serve the mobile network operators either. It is therefore entirely possible to implement these reforms without hurting the operators and therefore the economy. All that is required is an understanding of the importance of this issue by legislators and the political will to fix it.

It would be foolhardy to believe that fixing Rica alone would deter criminals from their activities. But by fixing Rica we can arm the police with better tools to detect, investigate and prosecute crimes. Without this capability, the job becomes impossibly difficult for an already overburdened, under-resourced police service.

Our ability to restore accountability in the handling of public funds and the protection of South Africans rests on the strength of the criminal justice system. The police are a critical roleplayer in this system and the more reliable and accurate tools we can give them, the better outcomes we will see.

The benefits of revisiting Rica extend far beyond the safety of South Africans. By tightening the regulation of SIM cards, which nowadays often also function as a means for moving funds, we could also help efforts to restrict bank fraud and identity theft as mobile network operators are better able to verify their customers’ identities.

For the price of a relatively minor amendment to Rica requiring SIM cards to be securely packaged and properly sealed, we can start to make important inroads in the fight against crime and corruption. The time we’ve already wasted by failing to address the loopholes in the bill would only be worsened by a failure to do so now.

Time is limited in this term of parliament, but the safety and security of SA merits the prioritisation of this vital amendment in this legislative term.

• Khanyile is managing executive at Securi-Tech SA

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