The majority of the citizens of Belize own or use cellular phones from either Belize Telemedia Limited’s Digicell, or Speednet’s SMART services. The reality, however, is that the cell numbers of many customers are not registered, and thus are in no way tied to the identities of their owners.
The Police have noticed cell phones are often used by criminals as tools in their execution of crimes, but the process of pinpointing culprits has been a bit challenging because the owners of these phones are not easily identified, due to the absence of a registration base for such phones. To address the situation, as well as an assortment of other security concerns, Government has decided to mandate that all citizens register their cell numbers, or risk their SIM cards being deactivated.
Doug Singh, Minister of Police, told KREM News that both telecommunications companies are participating in the initiative, and after the law has been formally announced, citizens will have a period of six months within which they must register their numbers, or the phones will be strapped (deactivated).
Singh said that this registration process will also impede, or resolve, the theft of mobile phones, which has become a public plague.
In the case of SMART’s services, the process of registration will involve, not only the registration of the number, but also registration of the phone itself. This means that if a phone is registered to a specific person, and it is stolen, the phone can be deactivated, and it becomes useless.
Singh explained that in the case of BTL’s Digicell, which uses the SIM card system, the registration will be carried out in two stages.
In the first stage, customers will be required to register their SIM cards, which provide each user with a unique number.
After that stage has been completed, customers will then be required to register their International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) code on each phone. The IMEI code is a unique identity code that is broadcasted on the signal whenever a phone and SIM card are used to make a call on a network.
Singh says that another security concern that this will help address is the sending of threatening texts. With each phone number registered, the police will be able to track threatening texts and deal with offenders.
He explained that in numerous cases, when a murder has been committed, and the police conduct their investigation, they often find a number of offensive texts. These text conversations can often be linked to individuals who had contact with the victims, and may have been involved in their deaths.
As it stands, without the registration, police can’t take this approach in their investigation, because there is no direct way to link a person to the texts and have it hold up in court.
It is notable, as Singh mentioned, that persons will become liable for any crime that can be traced to their cell number after the registration. This means that if a phone is stolen, it must be reported immediately to the company. It also means that citizens must be careful and not register phones in their names on behalf of other people in an effort to try to exploit the system.
After the 6-month period for registration has expired and unregistered numbers have been deactivated, customers will still have the opportunity to reactivate them by getting their phones registered. All new SIM cards and SMART numbers will be registered before they are released to a customer.
A formal GOB release is expected sometime later in the week, with all the details of the new law for registration.
We also spoke to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Cheryl Lynn Vidal, who has told us that with this cell number registration, the police’s ability to investigate crimes will be tremendously strengthened.
She said that in order for police to request and make use of sensitive telecommunication information, an application must be made to the court, with all the appropriate explanations and justification for such access to, and use of, the private data. Only after the court approves the application, will the police be able to get the requested information from the telecommunications companies.
She explained that in the past, the police have used text messages, faxes, and phone calls to discover possible leads in their investigations. In particular, follow-up work based on cell phone records, has led to the detention and questioning of certain suspects, and these records have served as circumstantial evidence in the linking of possible suspects to a crime.
Now that the cell number registration will be mandatory, police will be able to match an identity to certain evidence, and investigations will move along more quickly.
She also touched on the topic of privacy invasion, which has been a concern of members of the public. She explained that the cellular registration will not be any sort of invasion of privacy; in fact, there are procedures that must be followed, as explained above.
In fact, she cited that it is a criminal offense for any person or organization to be in possession of sensitive telecommunications information without the Supreme Court granting access to such data. Amandala