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Pakistani Cellphone Crackdown May Fuel Black Market

As Pakistani cellphone users face a deadline this week to match their SIM cards with their fingerprints, analysts say the move by the government could further a black market in illicit communications.

The Pakistani National Accountability Bureau has estimated, in a filing before the Peshawar High Court, that over 40,000 SIM cards traced back to Afghanistan are operational in Pakistan, and that most of them are being used in terror related crimes.

The government says that by storing fingerprint data in a national database - and linking the information to cell phone card users - it will enable intelligence to curb terrorism.

Officials in Islamabad have said those mobile users who don’t or can’t register their fingerprints and SIM cards by the deadline will have their service cut off.

Some analysts say the move to link SIM cards with fingerprints could fuel an underground market for SIM cards.

“SIM card fraud and misuse is a huge problem, and a huge problem globally,” said Roberta Aronoff, Executive Director of the Communications Fraud Control Association a mobile communications industry group. “There’s all different types of fraud and crime that can be perpetrated just with a SIM card.”

Several global carriers have created their own database of what they consider to be fraudulent SIM cards and stolen mobile devices, Aronoff said.

Meanwhile, the lines are getting longer outside biometric centers across Pakistan, as the deadline looms for cell phone users to register their SIM cards.

Some Pakistanis may bristle at the time and long lines required to get their SIM cards registered by the deadline. But for the millions who depend on their mobile phones to earn a living, the threat of having their service cut is severe.

“I am a car dealer, my entire business runs on cellphones,” Peshawar businessman Shahid Khan told VOA’s Deewa Service. “I have left all my day to day things…to verify my cellphone SIM, [which] is how I will run my business if my number is blocked.”

The campaign is part of a National Action Plan to counter terrorism after a Taliban massacre of 150 people, mostly students, at a military-run school in Peshawar in December of last year. Officials said the killers used cell phones registered to a woman with no obvious connection to the crime.

The task will be daunting.

The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority has estimated there are approximately 130 million mobile phone users in Pakistan - over 70 percent of the population - and many of those users are clamoring for the latest 3G and 4G phones. It’s likely that there are many more SIM cards in use in Pakistan, making the approaching deadline an unprecedented challenge.

But as reported by the Washington Post, only 38 million mobile users have registered 53 million SIM cards with their fingerprints.

The International News reports that Pakistani authorities are considering extending the registration deadline, but remain firm that once that new deadline is passed, unregistered SIM cards will no longer be usable.

Because mobile phones have been used in some of these attacks to trigger explosions, officials in Islamabad hope establishing links between SIM cards and individuals will help combat terror attacks.

But some cybersecurity analysts have their doubts.

“Mass surveillance of an entire population is traditionally the hallmark of a totalitarian state,” says Patrick Eddington, policy analyst in civil liberties and homeland security at the Cato Institute. “This SIM card registration campaign is a clear indicator that, unfortunately, Pakistan is on the path to becoming a truly totalitarian state.”

A former CIA intelligence analyst, Eddington calls the SIM card plan a “tacit admission” that Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, has proven itself unable to penetrate terror cells using more traditional human and signals intelligence tools.

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

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