MACRA cautioned as court okays ‘Spy Machine’

By Gregory Gondwe, Blantyre, Malawi

Three days after the Supreme Court of Appeal in Blantyre ruled that Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA) can roll out the Consolidated ICT Regulatory Management System (CIRMS) which is popularly known as ‘the Spy Machine’, the country's consumer rights body has cautioned the regulator on the use of the equipment.

On Monday this week, the highest court in Malawi ruled in the case of the state versus MACRA ex parte Hophmally Makande and Erick Sabwera in which the two were against the use CIRMS.

Consumers Association of Malawi (CAMA) Executive Director John Kapito told one of Malawi’s dailies that the system is useful to subscribers as it will assist them get better services from phone operators who have been providing poor services but said it also risk being abused.

“We appreciate that the system will reduce the number of unnecessary dropped calls that characterise the phone networks we have in the country. It will also assist subscribers who continue losing a lot of money to dubious deductions that operators have been making,” said Kapito to the daily.

Instead, Kapito said MACRA should use the system to deal with the numerous problems affecting the telecommunications industry and not for any spying as feared.

The consumer rights activist observed that just like any other system, CIRMS is not spared from abuse and therefore his message to MACRA is that the machine should be used for the positive function and not against anybody by not letting anybody at any time to abuse the system for their personal gains.

Kapito said subscribers’ information must be protected at all cost as right to privacy is very important and must be protected all the time because absence of such will vindicate people that opposed the implementation of the system due to the emotions associated with the time the machine was purchased and some just opposed it due to ignorance.

“The political environment of the time MACRA purchased the machine created an emotional environment which led to the people’s fears. However, some people just opposed because they were ignorant of how the system operates,” he said.

MACRA bought CIRMS from a US-based company, Agilis International, at a cost of USD6.8 million and ever since its acquisition, operators have been protesting its installation claiming it would infringe on the public’s right to privacy.

As a reaction to this protest, two concerned consumers – Makande and Sabwera – successfully stopped MACRA from implementing CIRMS) when they sought legal redress before the High Court however MACRA took the matter to the Supreme Court of Appeal where they challenged the High Court ruling that stops the regulator from going ahead with the implementation of the expensive equipment.

Soon after the ruling, newly appointed Director General for MACRA Andrew Kumbatira convened a media briefing where he said the regulator appealed against a judgement of the high court which stated that the regulatory body had no mandate, power or jurisdiction to implement a monitoring system known as the CIRMS.

“Since the Supreme Court has reversed the High Court ruling, MACRA will now proceed to implement the CIRMS with immediate effect and the system will be implemented in line with the mandate of the Communications Act,” he said.

The regulatory body, he said, will soon finalise some issues like the link connections to all operators and upgrade the software since it has been idle.

Kumbatira explained that MACRA procured the CIRMS in 2010 for the purpose of fulfilling its statutory monitoring mandate in respect to quality of service, Revenue Assurance, Fraud management and spectrum management and in reversing the decision of the High Court, the Supreme Court considered two main issues like whether MACRA has the authority to use the CIRMS under its governing laws and also whether the use of the CIRMS is constitutional.

In deciding on the first question, Kumbatira said the Supreme Court held that the Communication Act gave MACRA the powers to monitor activities of its licenses in order to fulfil its statutory obligations including consumer protection.

The Supreme Court also held that the Act mandates MACRA to obtain data in any form or manner while on the constitutionality of using the CIRMS, the court held that the use of the CIRMS was a lawful limitation to the right to privacy, information and freedom of expression.

“In arriving at this decision,” Kumbatira told the media “the court ruled that the rights cited were not absolute rights and that they could be limited under section 44 of the Constitution. Furthermore the court recognised that the use of the CIRMS has passed the constitutionality test under Section 44 of the constitution.”

Kumbatira also dismissed assertions that CIRMS is a spy machine.

“This will boost the country’s economy as no operator would cheat when it comes to levy and tax while consumers will benefit as the system will also be monitoring the dropping calls and other qualities in service delivery,” he said.

In his effort to dispel the assertion Kumbatira said the CIRMS machine cannot track voice.


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