Mozambique has more than six million cell phone users, many of them using the cheap prepaid models that don’t require any sort of registration to purchase. The result: most of the country’s cell phones can be used anonymously, something the government is suddenly determined to stop. A new rule gives cell phone users two months to register their names and numbers with the government, all thanks to some recent rioting.
Back in September, the capitol city of Maputo was rocked by riots over food and water prices, among other grievances. Police who were called out to control the violence resorted in some cases to using live ammunition, and more than a dozen people died. The Mozambique parliament heard different versions of what happened, with some arguing that the riots were legitimate social protest by the downtrodden and other blaming mere criminal elements for the violence.
In response, the government issued a new bread subsidy, replaced the agriculture minister with the interior minister who had overseen the police response—and demanded an end to anonymous cell phone ownership. Word on the street is that the move is designed to clamp down on anti-government organizing using cell phones, something seen during the riots, but the government says it’s more about stopping criminal harassment of citizens and Nigerian-style “419” scams.
The Mozambique press is not convinced. As one outlet put it, “This is perfectly true, but it has been going on for many years… This went on for over a decade, but did not lead the government to pass legislation obliging users to register their numbers. Clearly that has only happened now because of the riots against price rises on 1-2 September in Maputo and the neighboring city of Matola, which were coordinated by mobile phone text messages.”
Whatever the motivation, prepaid cell phone users have until November 15 to sign up. An American now living in Maputo tells us that the government has only 15 places around the country at which this registration can take place. Lines at some of these “were almost 100 people long at times,” though residents seem to believe that the government is bluffing. “The general attitude at this point is that they [the government] really aren’t going to turn off people’s phones.”
Mozambique policy follows a worldwide trend. Iran famously cracked down hard on anonymous services like text messaging and Twitter which could be used with relative impunity on cell phones after election protestors used the tools to organize weeks of protest. But numerous OECD countries have similar policies on cell phone anonymity, since disposable prepaid phones are perfect for coordinating criminal enterprises without leaving a trace. (The Times Square bombing suspect, Faisal Shahzad, used such a phone.)
In the US, the “Pre-paid Mobile Device Identification Act” was introduced in the Senate back in May, but it looks unlikely to pass before the new Congress starts next year. The bill would require retailers to register prepaid cell buyers’ full names, home addresses, and date of birth, all verified with a government ID.