Under a newly approved law, authorities in Kazakhstan will from this summer have the power to remotely disable mobile telephones that are not registered in a state database, Tengri News has reported.
Officials say the measure has been adopted as part of the fight against terrorism.
Major mobile phone service operators Kcell and Beeline say that since the start of the year, the Information and Communications Ministry has been actively working on creating a register of International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers, which are unique to every mobile device.
Under the new law, mobile operators will be required to block all mobile phones that have not been registered. The rule on registration will come into force on July 1, 2017.
Nur.kz news website has reported that the Information Ministry formed a working group together with law enforcement and mobile phone service provider representatives to draw up the specific rules on registration within the coming months. Although the details have not been worked out to date, the law is already on the books.
Service providers have said that similar requirements — albeit intended to reduce phone theft — are in place in several countries, including Turkey, Azerbaijan and Ukraine.
IMEI numbers are distinct from SIM cards and can be used in some cases to trace the whereabouts of stolen phones and, if necessary, block them.
Since authorities would need to have an IMEI number to be able to effect the block on a phone, the question arises as to how they will obtain this data in the event of non-compliance from network subscribers — the general public. But network operators are able to determine the specific models and IMEI codes of their customers’ phones once calls are made, and so as long as they cooperate in full with the authorities, tracing down the IMEI of any phone operating on a Kazakhstani network is possible. Telecommunications companies in Kazakhstan have typically made no real effort in shielding the privacy of their clients from the authorities.
Azat Peruashev, a member of parliament with the pro-business loyal opposition Ak Zhol party, said that the IMEI register was a requirement of the times and was needed to combat terrorism.
“This is a universal global tendency. In the United States and the United Kingdom, not only devices are placed under control, but they also check and read the personal correspondence of their owners,” Peruashev said.
This is a more than slight manipulation and misrepresentation of the facts, although it illustrates starkly how instances of malpractice by security services in the West has provided authoritarian governments, like that of Kazakhstan, cover for implementing policies profoundly inimical to privacy.
But on the petty crime front, the need to make mobile phones traceable — on a voluntary basis, as is the case in most of the developed world — is certainly a pressing one.
Last April, the General Prosecutor’s Office signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Interior Ministry and mobile operators on the disabling of stolen mobile phones. That was prompted by figures that show that around 60,000 mobile phones thefts are reported in Kazakhstan every year. Of that amount, only around 2,500 handsets are returned to their owners annually. The ability to block devices through IMEI numbers would in that instance potentially serve to significantly reduce phone thefts.