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[KARACHI]  Following the December 2014 Taliban massacre of 150 people at a school in Peshawar province, Pakistan has been enforcing the matching all mobile phone SIMs (subscriber identity modules) cards against the fingerprints of their owners. 

By a 26 February deadline, 62.74 million SIMs were successfully matched against fingerprints on 47.75 million computerised national identity cards, while another 10.4 million were found ownerless and stand to be blocked by Pakistan Telecom Authority.

According to media reports, the terrorists who carried out the Peshawar attack were  using mobile phones with SIMs traced to a woman in Hasilpur, Bahawalpur district, some 770 kilometres to the south. Investigations showed she had no connection to the militants.

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Ali Hasan, a lawyer, welcomes this initiative. He argues that personal data used for validating SIM cards in Pakistan are already with the National Database Regulatory Authority, which has strict security protocols. But privacy advocates worry that the drive is a way for the state to eavesdrop on its citizens.

“I would like to know where the information is stored, who has access to it and what measures have been taken by the government to secure this huge database of citizen information”

Nighat Dad, Digital Rights Foundation

"As a concerned citizen and privacy advocate I would like to know where the information is stored, who has access to it and what measures have been taken by the government to secure this huge database of citizen information," Nighat Dad, director of the non-profit, Digital Rights Foundation, tells SciDev.Net.

Dad adds that her concerns with the mandatory, biometric verification of SIM cards included the absence of defined standard operating procedures, privacy and data protection laws.

"It is clear that even encrypted databases are not safe," Dad said pointing to recent revelations by Edward Snowden about the US and UK governments hacking into data through backdoors built into SIM cards by manufacturers.

“The chances of misuse and abuse of information collected against potential civil or political opponents may be yet another possibility," Dad says.

However, Salman Ansari, former adviser to the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications, Pakistan, says biometric verification is important not only for national security but also for individual security.

"Far too many SIMs were being issued incorrectly,” says Ansari who discovered that four SIMs had been issued against his name without his knowledge.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.

This is part of a set of pieces on data funded by the Hewlett Foundation. 

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