Malawi MPs endorse ‘spy’ machine

Malawi lawmakers on Monday approved the implementation of the most feared gadget known as Consolidated ICT Regulatory Management System known as  ‘spy machine after unanimously adopting a report from the House’s Committee on Media and Communications which supported the system.

The Committee report of the CIRMS was tabled in the House during the last meeting of Parliament in February this year and all the MPs who debated on it on Monday supported the Committee’s position to have the Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (Macra) implement the controversial system.

The report followed meetings which the Committee had with various stakeholders in the communication industry including operators, Macra officials and also after field visits between October 2011 and June 2012.

This was after Macra was dragged to court not to use the machine. Hophmally Makande and Eric Sabwera sought legal redress on the matter in their capacity as mobile phone users and had argued to the court through their attorney Lusungu Gondwe of Ralph & Arnolds that they feared for their privacy in an event the spy machine is implemented.

MPs have endorsed the implementation of  'spy' machine
MPs have endorsed the implementation of ‘spy’ machine

The High Court  had declared the machine illegal and ruled that it was convinced the CIRMS has the potential of being abused to eavesdrop telecommunication conversation without the user’s knowledge.

The spy machine was the centre of altercation between late Bingu wa Mutharika’s regime on one hand and opposition parties and civil society groups on the other.

Macra, which denied allegations that it intends to use the machine for spying purposes, is reported to have spent a heinous $6.8 million in purchasing the machine under the leadership of the organisation’s CEO Charles Nsaliwa.

First to speak on the report in Parliament was Lilongwe Central MP Lobin Lowe, who is also a member of the committee.

The  MP said contrary to the operators’ position that the machine will be used to listen to conversations and that their opposition to it was in the interest of the consumers, following an interface with all stakeholders it was clear that the system will benefit the consumer in a number of ways.

“The machine is important as it will be able through lawful interception to trace stolen phone, reduce call drops and also charges will go down,” said Lowe.

He argued that the interface also discovered that the operators wanted to be both the referees and the players in the communication industry.

“In short I could not imagine a profit oriented company protecting a consumer,” said Lowe, while supporting the adoption of the report.

Nsanje North MP Frank Viyazi said although the operators argued that they were already installing solutions to monitor revenue and minimise fraud, he felt that this was a task to be left in the hands of Macra if the country is to fully realise full benefits from the telecommunication industry.

“There were fears that Macra could abuse the machine to overhear conversation and that Macra was that time not functioning independently, we feel the machine if implemented in the way Macra proposes then it will benefit the consumer,” said Viyazi.

He added: “I wish to join those who have contributed to consider this report and have it adopted.”

Lilongwe City North MP Jolly Kalelo in his contribution said that telecommunication operators in their arguments just wanted to twist people’s minds into believing that the system will be able to eavesdrop people’s conversation but saod this was not possible as Macra will only require communication data records (CDRs) from the operators.

“Macra is better placed to keep the CDRs. Macra machine has no capacity to listen to conversations. CIRMS will play a very big role in Macra’s execution of its duties and consumers will enjoy high quality services while the country will be able to generate the much needed foreign exchange,” said Kalelo.

Zomba Malosa MP Anderson Undani said the machine is very important especially this time when operators are involved in  various cash transaction activities.

“This is not a spy machine at all. For a long time consumers have been complaining that the tariffs they are paying are not what they are supposed to pay. This machine will also consolidate Macra revenue, control fraud and assist Macra in spectrum management,” he said.

Added Undani: “I would like my colleagues in this House to adopt this report. The machine has no capacity to listen to conversation or voices or read contents of an SMS (short message service), this machine should be implemented now, now.”

Dowa North MP Chikusa said it was good that Macra explained thoroughly about the machine thereby taking off the feeling that it was a spy machine.

Chitipa North Nickson Masebo said that since the machine raised eyebrows when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wanted it implemented, the position of the House was a vindication that the DPP had the welfare of the people at heart.

He also said that it was important that now with the system phone users or sim card holders will be able to be registered thereby minimising phone fraud.

Winding up the debate before the House gave a nod to the report vice Chairperson of the Media and Communication Committee of the House Ellen Chisale said it was clear that the CIRMS will not only benefit Macra but also the operators as well as the consumers.

“This is to our own advantage. It is bad that sometimes people acquire sim card, abuse it and then discard it but now people will be able to get their sim cards registered and avoid such abuses,” she said.

The telephone operators have been resisting the implementation of the machine arguing that subsciber’s private information will not be safe as it will be handled by a third party, Macra.

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