The Argentine government has ordered all mobile operators to create a national register, tracking the details of every user in the country, which it wants to see deployed within the next 12 months.
Mobile phone theft is a huge problem in Argentina – it is estimated that 5,000 devices are stolen per day, according to the mobile industry body GSM Association (GSMA). To prevent criminal gangs from succeeding, the country's Ministry of Security and Minister of Communications now want to see a national register that lists the unique identifying 15-digit IMEI number of each mobile device and each user's personal details.
The Argentine government says the database can solve an important issue, because if a mobile phone is reported to be lost or stolen, the IMEI number can be blacklisted to prevent criminals from selling the devices on – and the phones can also be barred from accessing any mobile network in the country.
However, the government has decided that the national register must be developed, operated and maintained at the cost of the mobile operators, which means that contracts are now likely to become more expensive in Argentina as the providers will pass on this cost.
The data has to be properly encrypted and safely stored by the mobile operators, and the government wants to be able to access the database at all times in the interest of "national security".
Argentine national newspaper La Nacion says that there are about 60 million mobile numbers currently in use in the country, but the total population of the country is only 42 million. This means that there are some citizens likely using multiple mobile phones, some of which are prepaid and registered online.
The Argentine government has painted the new national register initiative as a scheme to help cut down on theft, as well as other types of crime, because criminal gangs use mobile phones as their primary method of communication. However, the fact remains that the register also gives the government the ability to track any individual in the country in real time.
IMEI numbers can be used to remotely triangulate a mobile phone's location as long as the device is switched on and connected to a mobile network, which means that the government has just mandated the perfect solution for mass surveillance, which has a grave impact on citizens' right to privacy.