Don’t share your mobiles! BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU!

Posted on July 14, 2008  /  31 Comments

The motto of any typical bureaucrat is “First my convenience!”. How can one expect Sri Lankan types to be different?

In late 1980s, when motor cyclists were found responsible for few key assassinations, the Police reacted first by banning helmets (before that it was compulsory) and then by prohibiting pillion riders. Why this nuisance? National Security! The risk and the inconveniences faced by public were no concern of the authorities.

Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) has done it again. According to the advertisements published in national weekend newspapers and elaborated in a Sunday Times news story, there are many things now the mobile operators, resellers, repairmen and users cannot do. For example, any mobile user in future has to carry a certificate from the operator that the SIM was issued to him/her. If not, face the risk of an arrest. All mobile phone and accessory resellers and repairmen have to register themselves. You can repair a house, a TV, a motor vehicle or even a fixed phone without a license, but not a mobile phone.

However, the biggest threat to tele-penetration comes from the regulation that prohibits shared use of mobile phones.

As found by LIRNEasia’s Teleuse at the Bottom of the Pyramid surveys, shared use is a common phenomenon all over South Asia. As of 2007 end, about 8 million SIM cards were issued and there were nearly 3 million fixed connections in Sri Lanka. The aggregate amounts to slightly more than half the population. On the other hand, 92% of the Sri Lankans at the grass root level had used telephones. The remaining 40% or so use others’ phones (and sometimes pay for the call).

Teleuse@BOP surveys reveal even more. 49% of Urban population and 63% of rural population let their phones shared by family members. Even among non family members, sharing happens but at slightly lower rate of 38%(urban) and 33% (rural).

A population living below US$ 2 a day cannot afford individual mobile ownership. The only practical option is the shared mode. By prohibiting the shared mode TRC leaves the poor with no option other than perhaps travelling several kilo meters to the nearest post office, which is open for limited hours and which may or may not have a public phone in working order. Is this what we really want?


  1. I was asked to comment on the new regulations by one of the local channels. As I composed the sound bite, I figured that there were two main impacts, based on our research.

    First, the new business model being pioneered in South Asia depends on getting as many revenue minutes as possible; it is not based on increasing users or ARPUs. The regulations prohibiting sharing have a strong negative effect on the model. If it is properly enforced, we could see a decline in growth of minutes, leading to radical declines in profitability and even the stalling of overall growth. This is bad not only for the companies and customers, but for the government as well, because they get 26% of the mobile spend as direct revenue through pass-through taxes and levies.

    Second, the regulations will harm poor people disproportionately. Sharing occurs most at the bottom of the pyramid. Rich families can afford to buy an extra phone to keep connected a child coming late from tuition or sports. For poor families, sharing is the only option.

    It is perhaps our fault that we have not communicated the survey results more effectively to the TRC. We keep inviting them to events, but they seem to have other priorities. If they don’t want our research they should at least go to the rural areas and see with their own eyes how CDMA phones are being used in multiple locations. What harm can come from a vegetable trader taking the phone home after dark?

  2. “Rich families can afford to buy an extra phone to keep connected a child coming late from tuition”

    This is too not permitted sir. How come a child get a sim card without the NIC?

    I have three SIM cards in my name.
    I have given one to my wife, one to my maid and driver, one I use.

    I cannot claim taxes if these were in other names.Can we change the names of these cards? What if someone forget his or her mobile in your car? or in your home? How can you get that phone across?

    The guys are off their heads.Must direct to IDH hospital.

    Donald Gaminitillake

  3. Dontcha just love the concept of national security?

    We should declare it our official religion or sumthin.

  4. Looks like TRCSL has too much authority or skills to be able to enact and implement such a ridiculous regulation. If only we could have even less than half that authority…we will not have to spent sleeples nights figting our powerful incumbent operators!

  5. Interesting article on the same subject in Sinhala at

  6. Luckily the CJ has been giving many a sensible decision. Someone like Donald should file a HR violation case for the whole country to benefit.

  7. Doanld Gaminitillake

    Yes we need lawyers to represent such community service cases free of charge

    Donald Gamintillake

  8. There are lawyers working free for such cases at Human Rights Commission. Contact Mr S G Punchihewa.

  9. I have bought two mobile SIMs under my name. I use one and my GF uses the other one (couple package). She cannot buy a phone under her name as her parents oppose our affair. They won’t allow her to use a mobile phone. She is in a boarding house and can use the phone there, not at her own home. With the new laws, she will have to return the phone to me and I will lose contact with her. Hope GOSL will have an answer to lovers like us.

  10. Is Sri Lanka heading for a License Raj? Will we have to take a license to use a watch, bread knife, radio, TV, refrigerator, washing machine, bed, a/c machine, ATM card, credit card, purse, remote control, PC, laptop, email ID, chat ID, Internet connection, palmtop, pair of shoes, etc. as well in the near future? All these can be used by terrorists if one harbors terrorists :-)

    The CJ clearly told that police check points won’t be of much help to prevent terrorist attacks? According to the media, the suicide bomber in Vavunia transported few policemen to the bus-stand before blowing himself up. I am sure the CJ will do the justice if someone can take the case into the courts.

  11. My “boys” can earn an extra income by soliciting bribes to free a mobile SIM or two every day. Since there is no wage increase for my boys, this will compensate them. Thanks TRC for creating a very creative way for my boys to earn a few extra bucks. I asked the public to use mobile phones to capture crimes but I did NOT ask you to capture soliciting bribes by my boys.

  12. We must all agree that we do have a serious security problem in this country. It is we who are also the first to complain when a bomb goes off in our vicinity about the government’s inability to prevent it.
    So let’s look at the new regulations with an open mind

    1) It requires the sales person (dealer, sub dealer or retailer) to ensure that the purchaser presents an ID card with a picture which matches the facial appearance of the purchaser. In case there is a mismatch a recent photo is to be attached to the application.

    Essentially prepaid is sold in most countries as a commodity. No user details are needed as the operator has no requirement to bill and collect. This was the case in Sri Lanka as well. However, with the rise of the global terrorism we have seen many countries imposing regulations requiring the collection of User Identity by operators at point of sale. Prepaid mobile connections have today become a very strong tool for the terrorist to operate and unleash acts of terrorism. This has been seen in Sri Lanka in all acts of terrorism carried out outside the war zone. Lack of proper ownership information has lead most of the investigations nowhere. On the other hand we have seen success at occasions where such information was available. One recent example is the case of the Wellawatte Train bomber who was caught trying to escape to north at a check point by a police officer who recognized the person after seeing a photo on TV.

    2) A subscriber who legally possesses a SIM card should not allow any other person to use it.
    I do not think this means that a person should not allow another to use his/her phone to take calls; it means that you should not part with you SIM without proper ownership transfer. I think we should look at the big picture without looking at the literal translation.
    Obviously, with or without these regulations, if you do allow a person to take a call using your phone it better be person who you know (not necessarily a family member) as if such person uses your phone to do anything illegal then you will naturally be held accountable unless otherwise you can identify the person making such call.
    I do not see how this will impact the bottom of the pyramid. In fact as the research shows, still mobile phone users can continue others to take calls using his/her mobile as long as he/she knows this person. However, what is prohibited is long term sharing, where the legal owner gives his/her connection to another for continuous use without transferring ownership

    3) Users should carry letter or a document issued by the mobile operator to prove ownership of the mobile connection.
    I look at this as a very practical way of collecting the user information of over 5 million mobile users in the country. Today no operator has correct information for most of the users of their network. This has time after time hampered investigations related to terrorism. By requiring Mobile phone users to carry a ownership certificate, the government has indirectly made it mandatory for users to re-register with the networks. I am sure we all will benefit from this exercise. Let alone terrorism today we cannot even stop getting nuisance calls from those perverts who do not have anything else to do as investigations always hit a blank wall.

  13. The solution must be appropriate for problem. There are many countries with serious security problems, like Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines. Do any of them ban sharing and do any of them require people to walk around with receipts (which cannot be verified anyway)?

    What exactly is the security problem? That suicide bombers use mobile phones? A suicide bomber can be 100% compliant with this rule and still blow us up. That mobile phones are used to coordinate criminal (including terrorist) activities? How will this rule stop that? I really would like to know.

    Isn’t it better to simply create a new criminal offense which states that if your phone is used in the commission of an illegal act (and it has not been reported lost), you will be culpable? Back it up with the current requirement that the NIC is needed to get a SIM (but allow a parent to get a SIM for a child and all that). But that would of course require that one goes through the Law Commission and then Parliament. But is that not the way problems are solved in democracies?

    By the way, under which section of the Sri Lanka Telecom Act is the TRC directing people to carry receipts for their SIMs? Is not this entire debate about an ultra vires and ill-thought-out action by an inept organization?

  14. I am not sure if you are looking at it with an open mind.

    let me ask a question, What harm does it do if a mobile user need to carry a letter or some sort of ID prove ownership of a phone connection?

    I do not know how the police do investigations, but I do know that not having user information has hampered many a invetsigation.

  15. An open mind is a critical one.

    What benefit comes from carrying an unverifiable (and for most people unavailable) piece of paper? We have got used to carrying around our NICs and showing them to whoever who asks us. Now we have to carry another piece of paper? The NIC is supposedly verifiable. Will some kola kella purporting to be a receipt be verifiable? After being carried around in the pocket for several months, will it even be readable?

    Why only this piece of paper? Why not the deed to my house or my rental agreement? Why not my birth and marriage certificates? Where will this end? Obviously, discretion will have to be exercised about which kola kella is acceptable and which is not.

    Will this not create opportunities for graft and corruption: please see the SC ruling on the Kirulapone Police Station case where a temporary driving license issued by the Police was held to be questionable (and the holder of the document unlawfully held in remand for more than a day)because the PC was not given a bottle of perfume that was in the car?

    An open mind weighs the costs and benefits; it assesses the alternative solutions; it looks at the negative consequences of the proposed solution.

    I gave an alternative solution to the problem of criminal activities being coordinated using phones registered in other people’s names. That comes from an open mind and a genuine concern about saving lives lost to terrorist bombs. I would like to hear from your open mind what problem this so-called solution will solve.

  16. See Some hopes – at least for 8 months. But the CDMA law sucks. Hope you guys so last night’s TV program with TRC playing the fool on RUPAVAHINI.

  17. “Isn’t it better to simply create a new criminal offense which states that if your phone is used in the commission of an illegal act (and it has not been reported lost), you will be culpable?”

    This is I guess a better alternative. But still, take these two possibilities:

    My sister got a free SIM with her phone, and it’s registered to another user (someone from the same phone company i guess).

    My brother got a SIM with a corporate package from a registered company that sells “couple packages” or outgoing free SIMS (as a side-business), for a very reasonable price. If you guys didn’t know already, this is a pretty lucrative business in Sri Lanka.

    Anyhow, both my brother and sister are not trained terrorists. But what would happen if the LTTE captured them and brainwashed them? They would blow themselves up and the culprits would be two innocent guys from two innocent companies.

    (Please consider any other possibilities that might also be possible in alternate universes, cos I really suck at giving examples.)

  18. Dear me: You do suck at giving examples. What is sweet is that you know it.

    The basic principle of all law (civil and criminal) is that people have free will. The minute you put “brainwashing” into the equation, this basic principle is violated. Once you put brainwashing in, anything goes: I can kill somebody in plain sight and say that I was brainwashed.

    We recognize that cars are useful things, but can be used for bad or even lethal purposes. If someone uses my car to do bad things, I am responsible, until and unless I can prove otherwise. This is what I would do with phones. I am responsible for the phone connections I subscribe to (including those I give to my children). If my phone or another phone registered to my name is stolen, I should promptly report the matter and deactivate the SIM. If after it’s stolen, it’s used for an evil purpose, I have a defense if I have taken reasonable action to deactivate it. That’s how this would work.

    This would create incentives for people to be careful about who they give their phone to, or subscribe on behalf of. This would make it more difficult for criminals and terrorists to use other people’s phone for bad purposes.

    Much better targeted, and simpler solution than asking 8 million people to carry receipts.

  19. Okay,,

    after reading these i could come out with a simple solution which i see as a good for the country security and the user.

    no harm Producing an ID when purchasing but carying a license is somthing which should happen is 80s……..

    i could see there is lot of practical problems when it comes to the end users.

    for instance if we take rural areas in sri lanka still there arelot of families who are using one mobile for the whole family cos of its low rates..and afordability.

    hence i dont see this as a gud rule

  20. Janak Mutucumarana

    Okay, say we carry a some kind of a document with the phone when we travel. What could be the info in this docuument ?
    ex:mobile phone number, serial number of the SIM card, registered users name & NIC no.

    If you are stopped at a check point,
    1. How can the officer check the mobile number of the phone the user has? He has to call another mobile number and check the CLI? Or give an incoming call to the number in the document and see if the mobile rings? Can this be practically done at a check point? If the SIM card is barred for outgoing calls (which happens to most of us at the most unexpected times) someone needs to pay the bill also to before checking.

    2. To check the SIM card serial number you need to remove a few parts of your phone before you get the SIM out. Can this be practically done at a check point?

    3. What if a visitor is carrying a roaming SIM. May be he has to carry a document signed by the IGP?

    I agree with Prof Samarajiva that a criminal or a suicide bomber could well and truly comply with all the requirement and still detonate a bomb.

    When authorities implement laws they need to be more practical.

  21. Chanuka Wattegama

    This story makes to Indonesia press too. (Unfortunately it is in Bhasha)!

  22. Dialog customers- type #132# and press send

  23. Actually for Mobilel customers also it’s the same. #132# and press send

  24. *#60# = Phone Serial Number

  25. Chanuka Wattegama

    Thanks everybody for sharing this information.

    Does this work even one had no credit or the connection temporarily disconnected? (Ideally it should be)

    Also one should remember regular battery recharges. (A serious problem for me) Having a dead cell phone can be dangerous.

    Are all Policemen trained to distinguish mobiles from other similar looking devices?

    (Few years ago, while working as a systems engineer, I was setting the multimedia projector for a meeting a key minister was supposed to attend when his MSD wanted all of us out for checking. I had the remote controller of the projector with me. When re-entering room one security chap asked me demonstrate it a mobile by calling someone! It was after great difficulty I convinced him it was not a mobile.)

  26. I heard a similar story.

    Few years ago , when note books are new to the country, One of my friends got really into troble when a police offer did not belive it is a computer.Appently, the police officer asked him to prove it is a computer!!!

    Recently, another person was not allowed to enter Fort railway station with his Laptop, as security personel were not sure it is a computer. However, he managed got into train at Dematagoda railway station avioding Fort as there were no such security arrangement at Dematagoda.

    The above two stories suggest the difficutly of implementing a electronic version of certificates. Further, the information retrieved through a shortcode will appear in Eglish. I wonder how many mobile users and Police personel in the counry can read and understand it.

  27. A few years ago, when notebooks are relatively new to Sri Lanka, One of my friends got really into trouble as the police office did not belive what he is carrying a computer. Apprently, the police officer challenged the claim of my friend and asked him to prove it is a computer.

    Recently, I heard a story of a person who was not allowed to enter Fort Railyway Station with his Laptop compuer as the security personel at the station were not sure it is a computer.He managed to got into the train at Dematagoda Railway station as there were not such secutity arangement there.

    We also know the stories ( I do not know whether this is true) of people were arrested having a copy of famous “Gamperaliya” at home.

    Further, when you retrieve the info it appears in English. How many of mobile subscribers and the security personel in a position to understand this is a problem.

    The aim of this is not to undermine the efforts of security personel who do great job in difficult circumstances. Just to highlight the practicalities and the e version of certificates… Lot of training and groud work is required to make it happen….

  28. All the fuss about re-registrations, collecting user information (including photos) etc in the name of ‘National Security’ were proved to be useless exercises as It was found the terrorists behind Vavunia attack actually used Satellite phones. (Lakbima Headlines Sept 11, 2008)

    So now what TRC wants? Registration of Satellite phones too?

  29. After having read all the comments about this mobile certificate. I see no useful purpose in this apart from the gov getting more money by doing this. alot of us have more than one SIM, and thats how companies benefit by group calling rates etc. but with this law, you can only have one SIM or SIMS under your name. so does that mean, we have to carry two phones and call the other phone which is in our right trouser pocket. the sole purpose of National ID is to proof that your who you say you are but we all know, the picture taken at 18 years old does not match our present appearance. we all get stopped at police check points for nothing. we drive out of our home into a checkpoint which insists they check for bombs, sure, before we left home, we hid a bomb in our own car. the data collected at police check points serve no purpose and is discarded. same now applies to mobile phones, we now have to show proof of ownership to the cop who checks us, doesnt that take away our privacy and right to hide our mobile numbers from prying eyes. we might as well, place big posters in our cars displaying our nos to the whole world to see. and their sole purpose of this law is take away our privacy which is almost non existent at present. now they want to tap our phones too. the thing bout mobile phones is, if you have the mobile number, you can triangulate the position using a secret number which guess what, the police has. this is fine for us srilankans, what, if any, a foreigner coming to srilanka bringing his phone, they dont have these absurd laws in their countries. how does he prove the phone is his. those days a phone tap was done secretly, now its a open system. and who is blame if you start getting prank calls after this law is implemented. we dont keep logs of which check point stopped us, who checked it. so solution to, if you dont want the police to come knocking on your honeymoon time, turn off the phone, that way no one can find where you are. but defeats the whole purpose of the phone. same applies to CDMA phones, which became popular, now its against the law to carry them. to summarize idiotic laws created by idiots serve no useful purpose in society than to inconvenience the public. by all means create new laws which are humanly,ethically,morally serve a useful purpose for the country. taking this ‘porn ban’. its a noble plan but cant be implemented, idea was good but it can never work, and will cause more harm than not having such a law in the first place. we are already paying to access the internet and email, now we are told to pay a additional fee to check mail coz your email inbox has got a new mail which contains porn links, which is common in the form of spam. we can be a better country if these idiotic laws and people making them stand down and let qualified people do their job. and the sole purpose of having content filtering software at user end is defeated as thats their job.