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Millions of Pakistanis Have to Give Their Fingerprints to Keep Using Cellphones

The massive effort follows the killing in December of 150 students and teachers by Taliban militants, who used cellphones registered to a woman with no connection to the attack.
February 24, 2015, 9:15pm
Photo via Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

In an effort to combat terrorism in Pakistan following last year's Peshawar school massacre, authorities are in the middle of a massive drive to collect fingerprints from the millions of people who use cellphones in the country in order to confirm their identities. Relinquishing the data is compulsory — those who fail to do so before April 13 will lose their service.

An estimated 103 million of Pakistan's "subscriber identity module" (SIM) cards were suspected of being invalid or improperly registered at the beginning of this year. So far, some 38 million owners of 53 million SIM cards have verified themselves at mobile phone outlets outfitted with biometric machines across the country. But with roughly 136 million subscribers in the country, an awful lot of thumbprinting remains to be done.

This ambitious drive to collect personal data was prompted by the killing of 150 students and teachers by Taliban militants at a Peshawar school last December, after officials determined that the attackers had used cellphones registered to a woman with no connection to the Taliban.

Related: Why the Pakistani Taliban massacred 134 children at a school in Peshawar. Read more here.

"The Peshawar attackers were communicating [via cellphone] with their handlers across the border in Afghanistan," an unnamed security official told NBC News. "We have to take those advantages away from them."

The _Washington Post _reported that the collected fingerprints will be checked against a database established a decade ago by the government. Individuals whose prints are not already registered will have to supply them to the National Database and Registration Authority. In order to use cellphones, some 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees will have to provide a statement under oath affirming that they will not misuse the technology.

The initiative originally called for identities to be confirmed within 28 days, but the deadline was pushed to April after service providers insisted that they needed more time to set up verification stations.

"We've tried to reach far and wide, especially the villages, deploying hundreds of vans and kiosks to ensure people have enough time and access to register," Omar Manzur, a spokesman for the mobile provider Mobilink, which covers 32 percent of Pakistan's customers, told NBC. "However Pakistanis have large families, and users have a habit of buying multiple SIMs."

Related: Pakistan's death row prisoners face broad 'terrorism' charges, harrowing conditions, and a crumbling justice system. Read more here.

"It's a massive, nationwide exercise with a tight deadline, but hopefully we will be able to verify our customers by the April deadline," he remarked to the Post. "We have sent out 700 mobile vans all across Pakistan to reach out to these far-flung areas, the villages and small towns."

The government's ultimatum has caused long lines and many complaints from users who doubt that this push will actually diminish the likelihood of terrorism within the country. A paper published in 2013 by the GSMA, an association of more than 800 mobile service operators, anticipated this sentiment.

"An increasing number of governments have recently introduced mandatory registration of prepaid SIM card users, primarily as a tool to counter terrorism and support law enforcement efforts," the paper said. "However, to date there is no evidence that mandatory registration leads to a reduction in crime."

Forced Returns of Afghan Refugees
Collecting the biometric data of millions of cellphone users is not the only security measure adopted by Pakistani authorities in the aftermath of the Peshawar slaughter.

Following the attack, officials lifted a moratorium on executions for terrorism-related charges, which rights groups have noted can be arbitrarily and broadly applied. Earlier this year, authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where Peshawar is located, started training teachers to carry guns to school.

Related: Pakistan responds to Peshawar massacre by arming its teachers. Read more here.

Local officials have also cracked down on Afghan refugees in what rights advocates describe as a misplaced retaliation for the attacks. There has been quite an uptick in the number of Afghan refugees repatriated to Afghanistan — nine times as many in January than in December.

Authorities have characterized these repatriations as "spontaneous returns" as opposed to deportations, but many of the recent repatriations appeared to be coerced, corresponding with an increase in arrests and detentions of Afghans.

"Pakistani officials should not be scapegoating Afghans because of the Taliban's atrocities in Peshawar," Pheli Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Sunday. "It is inhumane, not to mention unlawful, to return Afghans to places they may face harm and not protect them from harassment and abuse."

The Pakistani government would issue "proof of registration" cards to Afghan refugees — but cards are no longer being issued, leaving thousands without legal residence and benefits, and subject to deportation. More than 2,200 Afghans have been deported since the beginning of 2015 — that's more deportations That figure is more than half as many as those deported in all of 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The Pakistani government has deported more than 2,200 Afghans since the beginning of 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration — more than half as many as those deported in all of 2014.

"Pakistan's government is tarnishing the country's well-deserved reputation for hospitality toward refugees by tolerating the punitive and potentially unlawful coercive repatriation of Afghan refugees," Kine said. "The government needs to defend the rights of its Afghan population and ensure that local authorities aren't carrying out vindictive reprisals for an atrocity the Afghan refugees bear no responsibility for."

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi