War of words erupts in Kenya over fake phone clampdown

Safaricom says it has "strong reservations" on plans by Kenya's Communications Authority that would see it boost its monitoring of mobile phones to detect fakes, but the regulator has hit back.

Speaking to newswire Reuters, Safaricom - which is the largest mobile network in Kenya - said the policy from the regulator to place new snooping hardware across Kenya's three mobile operators could breach their customers' privacy, and given them expanded access to calls, messages and even financial data.

"We have registered our strong reservations about this and especially the need to have this system subjected to the relevant public debate as it touches on confidential communications belonging to our customers," Stephen Chege, Safaricom's corporate affairs director, told Reuters. The network is 40 per cent owned by UK-based Vodafone.

The government is looking to crackdown on illegal or counterfeit mobile phones, many of which are sold into African countries and coming out of Asia, as they are believed to be used by criminals. But as they are fakes, they are not easy to track, making it more difficult for government agencies to stop criminal activity.

In 2012 Kenya joined other African nations in a mass switch-off of phones with absent or fake IMEI codes, which give each handset a unique identity.

The government has hit back at the allegations of snooping, telling journalists at a recent news conference that the measures are necessary to help crack down on fakes.

Communication Authority of Kenya Director General Francis Wangusi (pictured) told journalists, as quoted by News Ghana: "The use of counterfeit devices poses a great security threat, because such devices do not provide for effective identification or traceability of network transactions and users.

"We have therefore purchased a device management system (DMS) that will detect counterfeits that are operating in the mobile system," he said, adding that it should be up and running by June. It operates as a centralised database linked to unique identifier on phones that will be able to blacklist devices and block them from mobile networks in Kenya.

The DG appeared to take a swipe at Safaricom's comments, telling journalists: "To tell us that we are installing this device for accessing confidential data, is a total white lie [sic]. Releasing this information is intended to mislead the public."

Wangusi said the regulator has been in talks with both mobile operators and stakeholders on these issues since last year, adding that the recent complaints by Safaricom did not surface during these discussions.

Kenya has seen its focus on criminals increase dramatically since the 2014 attack at the Westgate shopping mall, and this has been a major boon for security and surveillance services in the country, with a boost also coming from Kenya's security budget.

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