cellphones, fingerprints, pakistan: Identity Management

fingerprintA recent report about verification of SIM cards in Pakistan has been picked up by news outlets and given wide spread coverage. It lends itself to some sensationalish headlines (e.g. "Pakistan’s New Orwellian Cell Phone Policy: Register Fingerprints or Lose Service") which added to the prevalence of the report.

There are many different slants on the story, from outrage at Big Brother tactics to hopes that the process will help thwart terrorist activity. Let's look past the headlines at some interesting aspects of identity management in Pakistan.

Indeed Pakistan is in the process of verifying the ownership of 103 million SIMs (Subscriber Identification Modules). The process began in January and is supposed to be completed by April 15th. On that date service providers will block any numbers that have not been verified.

The facts are not quite as sensational as the headlines. Pakistan already has fingerprints on file in the database that manages the information for all citizens of Pakistan age 18 and over. Pakistan claims to have the largest national  biometric database of any country. It is managed by NADRA, the National Database and Regulation Authority, which is also responsible for issuing Computerized National Identity Cards (CNIC).

The cards are required for just about everything - getting a drivers license, bank account, admission to college, a passport, and a mobile phone SIM card. The SIMs should be matched to the CNIC of the buyer, but many older SIMs are not. Cellphones are often used as part of terrorist activity, and are either untraceable or fraudulently registered to an innocent citizen. By verifying ownership the government hopes to curb the use of cellphones in terror attacks.

fingerprintThe verification process requires that people bring their CNIC and phone to the mobile phone provider, and have their fingerprint read with one of the biometric devices  present in all cellular stores and kiosks. If the print matches the one already on file with NADRA, the SIM is verified. People are also told about the SIMs on file as belonging to them. If the person does not own a SIM in question the phone company blocks it right away.

This has been an enormous undertaking for the 5 cellular companies operating in Pakistan. The stores are mobbed all day with people lining up to verify. The companies also have set up kiosks and small stands in markets. as well as trucks and vans that drive out to rural areas to process those people. They were verifying an amazing 1.5 million per day through February. Number are lower now, at about 200,000 per day, as areas with dense population have been mostly processed by now.

As of March 27th mobile phone companies have re-verified around 74 million SIMs, out of total 103 million that were due for biometric re-verification. More than 11 million SIMs were disowned by the customer they were linked to, and have been blocked. So the total of processed SIMs is around 85 million. There are about about 2 weeks and 18 million SIMs to go. Any SIMs that have not be verified by April 15th will be blocked by the cellular companies. 

After that time, people will be able to go to their provider and have a SIM verified and reactivated for a fee.  The companies are looking at the 18 million with dread, figuring that the procrastinators won't act until the SIM is blocked, at which point they'll all come swarming in at once.

There are about 150 Million Mobile Phone Users in Pakistan - a penetration rate of about 80%. There are 5 cellular companies.