Millions in Myanmar risk having mobile phones cut off after SIM registration deadline
Thompson Chau Myanmar Times Wed, Apr 29, 2020
A woman walks by signs for mobile phone service providers Telenor, Ooredoo and MPT on Bogyoke Aung San road in Yangon. Photo: The Myanmar Times
YANGON – Millions of people in Myanmar risk having their mobile phones cut off tomorrow, in the midst of the pandemic crisis, if the government goes ahead with its deadline for users to register their SIM cards with a valid identity document.
The Posts and Telecommunications Department (PTD) set the April 30 deadline back in February – before the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic – saying that more controls over SIM-card ownership were needed to make electronic transactions more secure and to curb crime. Users are also to be restricted to two SIM cards from one operator.
Unless the deadline is extended the operators will block the calls and data of users not in compliance this week. SIM cards not re-registered by June 30 may be permanently shut off.
An official reminder to register was issued on April 16 and the authorities have made no move to extend the deadline even though many communities in rural areas would struggle to find a retailer to carry out the registration and the mobility of urban residents is limited by the lockdown. SIM card vendors in Magwe Region, for example, are currently closed to slow the spread of coronavirus. Many people in Myanmar also lack appropriate ID cards.
Responding to questions from The Myanmar Times, PTD assistant director Daw Aye Myint San confirmed that the deadline is April 30. After that date, she said, users would still be able to access websites and applications for registration purposes
Telenor, one of four operators in Myanmar, said on April 22 that it “realises the importance of being connected, especially now as many parts of the country faces restrictions on movement due to COVID-19 precautions, and people’s ability to visit branded shops to get help with SIM registration is limited.”
“The company will do its utmost to minimise any adverse impact on its customers and will strive to give customers a fair chance to re-register SIMs ahead of any service disruption,” the Norwegian operator said.
Registering SIMs under the legal name and ID can help customers “avoid malicious activity by criminals especially in mobile financial services”, prevent misuse and exploitation of the actual user and help hold SIM card holders accountable for their actions, state-owned mobile operator MPT says on its website.
Blocking unregistered SIM cards is “the worst decision at the worst time”, commented Oliver Spencer, adviser to Free Expression Myanmar, a local civil rights group.
“The people whose SIMs are blocked will likely include the poorest and most marginalised. Marginalised people are already suffering the greatest from COVID-19 and this just makes their situation worse.
“Right now the government should be focused on ensuring access to information about COVID-19 and tackling the psychosocial impact of lockdown isolation, both of which require an increase in internet access and phone calls.”
Digital rights groups and civil society organisations have raised their concerns over the mandatory registration policy. Myanmar has no laws or regulations on privacy protection, and so personal data is not legally protected from state access.
“We are concerned that, without having a proper legal framework for data protection and for the government’s data requests, such a policy can easily be misused to violate people’s rights to privacy and data protection,” said Daw Wai Phyo Myint of tech hub Phandeeyar.
“Now at this pandemic time of COVID-19, access to communications channels and access to information are more important than any other time,” she said. Millions of people unable to register in time will lose all telecoms services, she added, calling on the government to scrap or postpone the deadline.
Daw Wai Phyo Myint also urged the government to reinstate recently banned ethnic media websites and restore internet to the nine townships in Rakhine and Chin states which were cut off by the government in mid-2019 during conflict with ethnic armed groups. With the blackout, more than a million people living in those townships cannot register their SIM cards online.
The Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation, MIDO, a civil society organisation which has advised the government, has stressed that many among Myanmar’s large rural population live far from government offices and are most in need of mobile connectivity to stay in contact with the government.
In addition, the move will affect mobile money. KBZ Pay, with five million users, links each account to a SIM card number. It is unclear how mobile wallets could function with the blocking of data.
Concerns have been raised that operators are being required, or even choosing to gather more personal information than is necessary to register a SIM to an identity document, and that this is taking place in the absence of a data protection law. A minimum age requirement of 14 is also a problem for many families.
Yangon-based Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business has observed that several operators are asking for information about ethnicity and MPT is also asking for social media accounts and email addresses.
The new SIM registration rules are expected to be followed by a controversial move to store biometric data in a government database, which has been put out to tender.
The communications ministry plans to introduce biometric checks nationwide for mobile telephone users via a centralised database storing private information, as this newspaper reported last December.
From: THE MYANMAR TIMES, MANMAR Wed, Apr 29, 2020
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