‘Spy Machine’ brings telecoms fears

By Gregory Gondwe, Lilongwe, Malawi

It all started with a seemingly simple announcement three months ago that the Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA) had acquired a machine that will stop telecommunication operators from duping the country of revenue.

MACRA and government officials touted the machine, part of the Consolidated ICT Regulatory Management System (CIRMS) Project, as the tool to stop telecommunication woes where people were being overcharged and calls were being dropped but still incurring charges.

Instead of welcoming the development, operators and the public led, by civil society organisations, protested against the installation of such machine, claiming it would infringe on the public’s right to privacy.

MACRA agreed to buy the system from a US-based company, Agilis International, at a cost of USD6.8 million and by August, it had paid USD2 million. Quickly, the high-tech call tracking system became known in the eyes of the public as MACRA’s ‘spy machine’.

Telecommunication operators in Malawi claim that using such equipment is a violation of users of their services and will compromise obligation and duty they have to their subscribers. They says it is also contrary to the laws of Malawi.

Section 21 sub section c of the Malawi Constitution states that ‘Every person shall have the right to personal privacy, which shall include the right not to be subject to interference with private communications including mail and all forms of telecommunications.’

While MACRA remains adamant that it wants to use the system, operators, politicians and the public remain suspicious of the real intentions of government.

Spy fears

Amid much tussling over the system’s use, MACRA put its foot down and last month it almost switched on the machine, only to be stopped in its tracks when politicians and human rights activists challenged the implementation by seeking a court intervention.

On October 14, 2011 the High Court in Blantyre indeed stopped government from switching on the machine.

The court gave an order to MACRA restraining it from getting Call Details Records (CDRs) from the country’s telephone operators.

Lawyer Ralph Kasambara was hired to challenge the rolling-out of the machine.

“I argued in my challenge that the rolling-out of the ‘spy machine’ is not justifiable as it is a violation of human rights, privacy and confidentiality,” said Kasambara.

Blantyre High Court granted the injunction pending an inter parte hearing. 

Lawyer Kasambara said in an earlier interview that he had instructions to seek a court order restraining MACRA from implementing the system and the telecommunications services providers from giving private information without consent from their clients.

The kind of information CDRs provide include who called which number; details of calls received; time and duration of calls; location where call was made or received; SMS sent and received; type of handset used and other detailed subscriber information.

Malawi telecommunication operators already provide summarised data from the CDRs and MACRA is not currently able to access detailed subscriber information. But the new system would allow MACRA access to information about the calls made by anyone in the country.

In the initial dispute over the matter, Information and Civic Education Minister Patricia Kaliati echoed what her predecessor had said: that the machine would only be used to improve the quality of services being offered by the operators and manage traffic.

Government has backed MACRA’s intention to implement the Consolidated ICT Regulatory Management System CIRMS Project, arguing that it will help the Malawi Revenue Authority recover lost revenue.

Tax collection aims

The former Minister of Information and Civic Education, Symon Vuwa Kaunda, added that the project would help government monitor revenue generated by the operators.

He said the intention was not to listen to subscribers’ phone conversations.

“Tax was removed on handsets and imposed on airtime. Government has no mechanism to monitor revenue generated by these operators. We are at their mercy. They declare at the end of the year how much they have generated. They can give any figure. The facility is to do with revenue generation to help MRA [Malawi Revenue Authority] tax accordingly,” the Kaunda said.

He said operators were opposing the project simply because it concerns money.

The country’s four operators, Malawi Telecommunication Limited (MTL), Telecom Networks of Malawi (TNM), Airtel Malawi and Access Communications Limited (ACL) have decided to keep a tight lid on the matter.

Operators reluctant

But in a leaked letter to the MACRA Director General from operators two months ago, it is clear that they started showing their reluctance about the project way back in October last year, when they turned down MACRA’s request to submit sample data for the project.

A letter written by the four operators and dated September 17, 2010, signed by the then TNM acting CEO David Chetty, Airtel (then Zain) MD Saulos Chilima, Faizal Okhai ACL CEO and MTL CEO Bernd Flack, says all telecommunication operators have an obligation and duty to act in the best interests of their subscribers and that the request by MACRA could lead to a compromise and violation of this.

“Further, the data requested is voluminous and, in order for the operators to be able to comply with the request, it will require a great deal of time and resources expected on the part of operators. We are also constrained by confidentiality provisions with numerous third parties, which make the provision of such information difficult,” argued the four companies.

The letter then declared that until MACRA addressed the concerns raised in this letter and at earlier meetings or correspondence, the operators were not obliged to submit the information as requested.

Leaked minutes of the meeting held at MACRA House on October 1, 2010 chaired by Richard Chisala, board Chairperson of MACRA technical sub-committee, indicate that government says the CIRMS Project is aimed at enhancing the monitoring, verification and validation of quality of service, revenue assurance, fraud management and spectrum management.

MACRA argues that every subscriber’s call records will be monitored and known by Authority – something that telecommunication operators question as they say subscribers will be too intimidated to use their networks since they will be monitored by the authority through records.

The operators further also wonder if the consumer protection is considered in the whole project considering that the information about subscribers will be given to the Authority without the consent of the consumers.

Operators also demand how confidential and secure will be the information collected by the Authority through the CIRMS equipment and challenge MACRA that they have internal quality teams, quality assurance teams and fraud management teams who are dedicated to their work and wondered why the regulator should be engaged in the same.

They also argued that for revenue assurance, they use the services of external auditors.

MACRA maintains the system cannot enable listening to people’s conversations, arguing the system has no audio out-put.

“The system has no audio monitoring or recording capacity, hence poses no threat to people,” said MACRA spokesperson Zadziko Mankhamba. ”The machine is aimed at monitoring performance of the services providers.”

But with operators’ insistence that they will not budge an inch to the demands from MACRA, government information and civic education minister Kaliati has decided to start threatening the operators.

She has since warned that if the operators continue resisting releasing CDRs, government will be left with little choice but to take their licenses back.

Government adamant

Kaliati told Biztechafrica in a telephone interview that if any operator is against the move, then they “should just bring the licenses back”.

She said it did not make any sense to for government to dance to the tune of the operators.

“Why should operators take us at ransom by taking us to court over this matter,” she said.

She added that operators in Malawi are only offering 25% network coverage, and that this was “not on because government needs 100% coverage.”

Under discussion

Opposition parliamentarians have now said they will take advantage of the sitting of parliament that will commence on November 14, 2011 to table the matter for discussion.

Already, the Media and Communications Committee of parliament which is supposed to present a report on the machine in the house has said it sees no problem with the Consolidated ICT Regulatory management system machine.

“It will be implemented in good faith and the regulator will not be listening to people’s conversation as widely feared,” said the committee’s vice chairperson Ellen Chisale, who said they have understood better about how the machine will be working after undergoing a debriefing.

Last week, MACRA courted support of Malawi media in an attempt to ensure that the machine rolls out.

On November 4, 2011, MACRA invited the country’s top media managers toZomba City where the regulator justified why Malawi needs the equipment Consolidated ICT Regulatory Management System (CIRMS).

MACRA continued to rubbish all negative stories about the machine and insisted that the system will put to end different forms of telecommunication fraud including revenue under-declaration by operators.

“It is absurd when we hear in some quarters that the equipment will be used to eavesdrop on telephone or monitor transcripts of short message texts and internet as empty and without basis,” said MACRA Director General Charles Nsaliwa.

The managers of most media institutions have now started saying that perhaps there is need to give MACRA the benefit of doubt and see how the machine is going to be used.

Apparently, there seems to be endless battles over the machine; on one hand government is battling a court case against the telecommunication operators who have taken the matter there while it is clear that opposition MPs will fight MPS from the ruling side over the pro and cons of installing the machine.

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