Nigeria’s terror-plagued communications minister Isa Pantami has begun moves to obtain Nigerians’ mobile phone identification protocols from telecom networks, a move that could further expose citizens to the state’s concerted efforts to track and monitor phone users, especially political opposition and critics.
The Nigerian Communications Commission, an agency under Mr Pantami, said all details relating to active mobile phones in Nigeria will be obtained from telecom networks and warehoused under a newly-established Device Management System (DMS).
President Muhammadu Buhari has reportedly given a nod for Mr Pantami to implement the project, which would see government obtain and store International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) of Nigerians’ mobile phones.
Privacy rights advocates said the policy will aid the government’s monitoring of citizens’ communications and tracking of real-time locations.
The government, however, claimed the project was only aimed at ending fictitious mobile phone registrations and helping Nigerians recover stolen mobile phones.
“Accordingly, His Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR, has directed that the Device Management System should be implemented within three months,” said the revised policy sanctioned by Mr Pantami.
The policy listed the aims the commission hopes to achieve, which includes to “curtail the counterfeit mobile phone market, discourage mobile phone theft, enhance National Security, protect consumer interest, increase revenue generation for the government, reduce the rate of kidnapping, mitigate the use of stolen phones for crime, and facilitate blocking or tracing of stolen mobile phones and other smart devices.”
It sets out to achieve these goals through a Device Management System that will serve as a database for all registered mobile phones’ IMEI numbers and the owners of such devices.
The IMEI number is the mobile phone’s fingerprint. It is a 15-digit number peculiar to every mobile device. With the IMEI number, a phone can be tracked and located irrespective of the cellular number in it. Network providers use the IMEI number to identify valid devices, and can stop a phone from accessing the network.
With the implementation of this policy, the Commission will have access to every IMEI number, NIN, and mobile numbers of every Nigerian.
This move comes while the telecommunications sector attempts to meet up with the NIN-SIM link deadline authorised by Mr Pantami.
Earlier this month, Mr Buhari stated that the SIM link programme will aid the government to easily identify its citizens, especially criminal deviants, urging Nigerian citizens and legal residents to obtain the NIN.
Mr Pantami, who has been embroiled in scandal as a result of his terrorist affiliations would gain access to every Nigerian’s information in addition to the infrastructure within his jurisdiction, raising privacy concerns.
Submission of Phone IMEIs new requirement to make calls, text, chat in Nigeria ― NCC
The Nigeria Communication Commissions (NCC) has disclosed that network providers will be required to cross-check all phones International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) and status on a proposed Centralized Equipment Identity Register (CEIR) otherwise known as Device Management System (DMS) before allowing a device to become active on their network. This is contained in the Revised National Identity Policy for SIM Card Registration published by the Commission.
The directive claimed the move was to curtail the counterfeit mobile phone market, discourage mobile, phone theft, enhance National Security, protect consumer interest, increase revenue generation for the government, reduce rate of kidnapping, mitigate the use of stolen phones for crime, and facilitate blocking or tracing of stolen mobile phones and other smart devices. “To achieve this, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) would be responsible for the implementation and management of the DMS to achieve the policy objectives”.
“The implementation of a Centralized Equipment Identity Register (CEIR) otherwise known as Device Management System (DMS) will serve as a repository for keeping records of all registered mobile phones’ International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) and owners of such devices. “IMEIs that have been reported as either stolen or illegal will be shared through the DMS to all the operators and service providers. The purpose is to ensure that such devices do not work even if different SIM Cards are inserted in those devices”.
The Revised Policy publication also noted that the President, Muhammadu Buhari has directed “that the Device Management System should be implemented within three months. This means any Nigerian who failed to comply will be unable to make calls, send text messages, or use the internet except through WiFi. “DMS will also provide access to all operators to cross-check the IMEIs and their status before allowing a device to become active on their network. “Furthermore, registered mobile phone technicians will also be provided with an interface to check IMEIs and ensure it has not been reported as stolen or illegal before they render their technical services”.
What is IMEI?
The International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number is an international identity number used to uniquely identify a mobile phone. The 15-digit IMEI number is an electronic fingerprint transmitted every time a phone is used, which reveals the identity of the mobile handset.
How can I find out my IMEI number?
IMEI numbers are independent of the phone number and are usually written underneath the battery or on the back of the handset. Mobile phone users can also check their 15 digit IMEI number by dialing *#06# on their mobile handset.
Should Nigerians be worried?
Yes! Although the IMEI can be used to reduce the cases of phone theft, the 15-digit number offers more power. It can give detailed information about a phone and its history. This is a concern. Not even in this era of rising data privacy concern across the globe. Such information in the hands of any governmental agency can be abused. However, some smartphone manufacturers such as Apple’s Find My and Samsung’s Find My Device already have features to track lost phones.
Which country has a similar policy?
Indonesia currently operates a similar policy. The Indonesia Cell Phone Association (APSI) reported that almost 20% of all active phones in the country come from black market, costing the government annually, about $190.4 million in mixed tax revenues. The IMEI control regulation in the country was scheduled to commence on April 18, 2020.