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Pakistan Tightens Control Of SIM Cards To Tackle Terrorism

A customer (R) gets his thumb scanned for bio-metric verification on his subscriber identity module (SIM) card.
A customer (R) gets his thumb scanned for bio-metric verification on his subscriber identity module (SIM) card.

If you want to use a mobile phone in Pakistan, you will have to leave your name, number, and fingerprints.

In an effort to curtail terrorism, the government has launched the massive undertaking of verifying the identity of every single mobile-phone user in the country of 180 million people.

Collected fingerprints will be checked against an existing national database, with the goal of tightening control over mobile phones and to prevent their use in militant attacks.

Since the measure was announced earlier this year, millions of Pakistanis have been lining up outside mobile-phone shops and kiosks in order have their fingerprints taken and their identities verified so they can continue to use their phones.

Pakistani citizens have to present their national ID cards and fingerprints. If their fingerprint matches the one in a national database, they can keep their subscriber identity module (SIM) card. If not, or if they do not turn up, their mobile service will be disconnected. Other residents, including more than 2 million Afghan refugees not eligible for citizenship, have to get a court document declaring they will not misuse their mobile phones.

The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) said on March 5 that more than 72 million SIM cards had been verified. There are about 103 million SIM cards in use in Pakistan. The deadline for all cards to be verified is April 14.

Reaction To Atrocities

The initiative -- one of the world's largest and fastest drives to gather biometric information -- has been met with mixed reaction from Pakistanis. Some have bemoaned the bureaucracy involved, while others agree the measure could help tackle mobile-phone abuse by criminals and terrorists.

"This is a good step, because these SIM cards have been used for many wrong things in the past," says Muhammadi Shah, a resident of Bajaur tribal agency. "Now, the registration will help pinpoint those who misuse SIMs."

Suleman, a resident of the restive northwest city of Peshawar, approves of the measure. "Some people [illegally] registered three SIM cards in my name. I went to the office and blocked all those SIM cards, and then I registered my own [verified] SIMs."

The Pakistani government announced the initiative soon after a Pakistani Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar in December that killed 150 people, most of them schoolchildren.

The unprecedented attack shook the country and prompted a series of government measures, including intensifying a military offensive against militants, introducing military courts to try terrorism-related suspects, and stepping up financial monitoring to make it harder for militants to transfer money.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told lawmakers last month that the verifications would ensure that the terrorists "would lose a big weapon."

Officials have said the verifications could help authorities trace mobile-phone users who commit crimes. Many criminals and terrorists are believed to use SIM cards purchased with fake IDs. Mobile phones have also been used to detonate explosive devices.

Just Chasing Shadows

Mobile-phone companies have worked with the government to install fingerprint-scanning devices around the country and launch advertising campaigns to win people over.

But not everyone is convinced.

"Pakistan should improve its [security] system instead of always troubling its people," says Arshad, a resident of the Charsadda district in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. "Is this their security measure [to curb terrorism]? What is the use of [intelligence] agencies getting [huge] funding when they can't find a criminal, a person carrying out bombings?"

Arshad said criminals and terrorists will always find new ways to cheat the system and get SIM cards.

"There are five SIMs registered in my name. Four are my own, and I don't know about the fifth one," says Azeem, another resident of Peshawar. "I tried several times to register it but each time I get a message saying it has not been registered. We went to the [pertinent] office, waited for several hours, and returned without getting anything done. Sometimes they say the network is busy or some other issue is blamed."

Last year, the government introduced biometric machines designed to check mobile-phone users' identities, making it a requirement for anyone getting a new SIM card. But following the Peshawar attack, the government is now checking all users.

Officials have said at least two of the SIM cards recovered from the scene of the Peshawar attack were issued to two residents of Punjab Province who had no obvious connection to the attackers.

Written by Frud Bezhan, with reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.