It's all about identity theft -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

It’s all about identity theft

By: Dr Irfan Zafar

The easiest solution to any problem is to order its shutdown and then go on to defend its absurdity, unless one reaches a point of consciousness realising one’s folly, but failing to take any blame for it as that requires moral courage – an attribute we lost long time back! Our functionaries have somehow attained perfection in this art of “shutting down” approach; the latest example being that of wild thinking on blocking the Prepaid SIM’s after the “successful” disconnection of mobile services on Eid day.

Ever heard of the word, creative thinking? But that, for sure, requires brain. First of all, we would need to understand the basic difference between the pre and postpaid mobile phone connections (SIMs) with regards to the Pakistani market. The worldwide phenomenon in this regard is that since there is a credit risk attached with the postpaid product, its subscriber documentation and address verification procedures are quite tight, as a hard copy monthly bill has to be delivered on the mailing address as well.

However, for prepaid connections since there is no requirement of bill delivery and no credit exposure as well (as its charges are deducted online), therefore, the subscriber identification/documentation process is quite loose or, at times, even nonexistent because it is considered as a disposable product.

In Pakistan, the only difference between these two products (pre and post paid) is the mode of payment; while they both are quite strongly documented and the subscriber verification process for both of them is almost similar. According to the current regime of subscribers’ activation mandated by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA); all new SIMs are issued as “non-active” SIMs and subscribers can only activate them by calling at the call centres (789) of the CMOs (cellular mobile operators) and subsequently are activated after an online verification process conducted through the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) by the CMOs, since the non-active SIMs regime was implemented in February 2009.

Recently, the PTA, after due consultation with all stakeholders mandated to acquire the pre-sales data of the SIMs as well and the same was put in place after registering all retail outlets across Pakistan and closing down thousands of the unregistered ones (not allowed to sell SIMs anymore). The data of the “SIM Purchaser”, along with the retail outlet ID, is available in the systems and can be verified from the “SIM Activator” when he or she calls in the 789 Call Centre number for online verification through Nadra database with respect to the activation of the SIM.

To add to it, all these calls are recorded and archived for future reference as well. With regards to pre-789 regime SIMs (activated before February 2009), according to the CMOs, there is not even a single working/functional SIM that is un-registered or un-verified, as around 16 million SIMs were blocked by the CMOs in the last four years under PTA’s guidelines based on the verification of the antecedents of cellular subscribers through Nadra’s database in the offline mode. The whole bunch of SIMs data (CNICs) was sent across to Nadra in the form of batches by all CMOs during 2008-2009 for offline verification and all such SIMs for which the CNIC data was not correct or not verified by Nadra were blocked right away.

Moreover, during the years 2009-2010, the CMOs ran three phases of verification through SIM Information System, whereby a subscriber could send his or her CNIC number through SMS on short code “668” and used to get a response from PTA’s centralised database about the number of SIMs registered under that CNIC for each CMO. He could then get those SIMs blocked that were not owned by him by visiting the respective CMO office/franchise or even calling-in at the Call Centre. This was done through extensive print and electronic media (press, radio and TV) as well as SMS broadcasts based campaigns. The CMOs also undertook “Proper ID Verification Project” on nationwide basis in 2011 and subscribers were yet given time to get their SIMs registered on their respective CNIC. All those subscribers not doing so were subjected to blocking of their cellular services or SIMs.

However, the CMOs can never be in a position to certify or indemnify the responsibility for the issues arising due to fake IDs/SIMs not being used by original owners in any case. According to the current regime of subscribers’ activation, all new SIMs are issued as non-active SIMs and they can only call the 789 call centers of the CMOs; they are then activated after an online verification process conducted through the Nadra database by the CMOs by asking at least two secret questions (which are only part of Nadra’s database and not printed on the CNIC), along with recording of these calls (as mandated by the PTA), and, therefore, all of them are properly registered. All the retail outlets eligible for selling these SIMs are registered (under legal agreements with franchisees and CMOs), thus no one else can sell these SIMs because the pre-sale data essentially required at the 789 Call Centers before activation process of any SIM cannot be sent by anyone else, but these registered retailers.

Another option can be of physical delivery at the addresses of the CNIC holders through postal or courier arrangement. However, it is physically and logistically an impossible proposition as millions of inactive SIMs are already lying in the market with thousands of retailers and cannot, therefore, be recollected. Moreover, the residential addresses on CNICs cannot ensure more than 20 percent correct deliveries at the addresses and last but not the least, no courier company/postal infrastructure can take up such a job of delivering thousands of SIMs on everyday basis (a rough estimate would be 220-250K SIMs on daily basis) all across Pakistan.

Everyone needs to understand that the basic issue faced in Pakistan these days is not related to unverified or unregistered SIMs, but, in fact, it is the ‘identity theft’, which is causing this hassle of multiple SIMs under the same ID. Due to the low literacy levels and social impediments, like women not showing their IDs for verification, people tend to disclose their CNIC IDs along with secret questions to certain retailers for the purpose of SIM activation process through 789 Call Centres, which at times is misused by certain miscreants.

Part of the solution lies in launching full-fledged campaigns for all the existing SIMs related IDs re-verification through 668 SMS short code based check for all active subscribers spanned over a period of two months after which those subscribers/SIMs, who would not have verified themselves may be blocked. However, this must be backed by a strong message by the Government of Pakistan and all advertisements must clearly mention about the threat for closure of service in case of not checking your IDs. The real focus, however, should be on creating awareness among the masses to safeguard the potential exposure of common man to the ‘identity theft’ through mass media awareness campaigns. With so much information floating around unprotected, the consequences of ‘identity theft’ can devastate human lives. Blocking services is a temporary, non-sustainable act; the success lies in implementing policies based on educated decisions.

The Nation