Should The LTA Be Allowed To InstallA Spy Machine?

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I read with dismay that the Liberia Telecommunication Authority (LTA) said it does not possess the equipment that is needed to actively monitor the quality of the country’s telecoms networks, Cellular News reports.

According to the article, the director of the LTA said at a hearing that the lack of the equipment was enabling some companies to under report their traffic and avoid full regulatory payments to the government. Further, the lack of detailed technical supporting documentation that such equipment would provide is hampering any attempts to enforce shut-down notices on companies that are suspected of fraud.

As a student of information technology (IT) and communication, I am taking aback by the LTA desire to undertake such arrangement without a national legislation. The invading of people’s privacy should be protected by GSM providers in all forms. The machine that the LTA is talking about here is a “Spy Machine”. This equipment is called the Consolidated ICT Regulatory Management System (Cirms). This system is designed to track calls, invade GSM users’ privacy and to prevent telecoms customers from being overcharged.

This system has both positive and negative implications and it should be backed by a national legislation if the LTA must succeed. Without a national legislation the process will be illegal and violation of the GSM users’ privacy.

It can be recalled that the telecommunication operators in Malawi have similar tussles on the matter but was later defeated by the by Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (Macra) over the Consolidated ICT Regulatory Management System (Cirms). Macra bought the Cirms – which was later popularised as ‘the Spy Machine’ – from a US-based company, Agilis International, at a cost of USD6.8 million and by August, it had paid USD2 million.

Since its acquisition, operators have been protesting its installation claiming it would infringe on the public’s right to privacy. They later ended in court over the matter.

Here in Liberia, the LTA is claiming that without said equipment it cannot enforce shutdown on GSM companies’ violators. The fact here is that, this machine perform beyond that point of enforcing shut down. It is a spy machine and GSM companies are under obligation to protect the privacy rights of their users. This could lead to a crises between the GSM companies and the LTA.

Telecommunication operators in Malawi still insist that using the high-tech call tracking equipment is a violation of their users’ rights, their services and will compromise obligation and duty they have to their subscribers.They also based their argument on the laws of Malawi saying Section 21 sub section c of the Malawi Constitution call for the protection of personal privacy. But parliament which has the bragging rights in the formulation of laws in the country overwhelmingly supported the controversial machine.In their submission, they also challenged the directive by Macra to all telecommunication operators to provide it with subscribers' call detail records.

Spy fears

Amid much tussling over the system’s use, MACRA put its foot down and 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 the Malawi 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.

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.

What will happen in Liberia if the LTA shall have installed such machine, looking at the political loyalty of our government officials? Will people rights to their privacy be protected? Let the LTA be open enough and tell the Liberian people the fact about this machine and its function in totality.

About the author:

Charles B. Yates is a student of IT- Networking and Communication at the National Institute of Information Technology (NIIT), Delhi, India. He can be reached on +91-9818-048750.

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