January 20, 2007 / 11:47 AM / 13 years ago

Zimbabwe army says cellphones danger to security

HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s military has said the country’s mobile phone operators are threatening national security by using independent connections to the outside world, official media reported on Tuesday.

A customer (R) makes a call from a cellular phone shop in Harare, Zimbabwe June 20, 2006. Zimbabwe's military has said the country's mobile phone operators are threatening national security by using independent connections to the outside world, official media reported on Tuesday. REUTERS/Stringer

“The mobile service providers have their own international gateway system, and from a security point of view, this is dangerous to the state because we need to monitor traffic coming in and outside, but at the moment we can not,” the Zimbabwe Defense Forces director for communications, Colonel Livingstone Chineka, was quoted by the Herald newspaper as saying.

Chineka said the three mobile phone firms should route international calls through the state-owned fixed line operator TelOne, and not use their own gateways, in order to make it easier to monitor international traffic.

There was no immediate comment from the three operators.

A Zimbabwe court this month suspended a government statute forcing mobile operators to route international calls through TelOne after a challenge by the country’s two private firms, Econet Wireless (ECO.ZI) and Telecel Zimbabwe.

The two companies had argued that re-routing calls through TelOne was meant to subsidize the loss-making state company. Net*One, the third mobile operator, is government-owned.

Zimbabwe early this year unveiled a proposed law that would give it authority to monitor phones and mail — both conventional and Internet — to protect national security and fight crime.

Rights groups say the “Interception of Communication Bill” is part of a crackdown which has included tough policing and political intimidation to stifle criticism of an economic crisis many blame on President Robert Mugabe’s policies.

Chineka, who was giving evidence on the bill, said security forces would give their input before the proposed law is passed by parliament, adding that mobile operators should be given at least a month to be connected to TelOne’s gateway.

“We want to listen, to make sure the nation is safe. If we liberalize the gateways then it means there would be a group of people who would communicate without our knowledge,” Chineka was quoted as saying by the government-controlled daily Mirror.

Econet has the largest subscriber base in Zimbabwe and is in the process of adding a further 300,000 customers before the end of the year to take its client numbers to 800,000.

The company, listed on the Zimbabwe stock exchange, has said that if incoming traffic for customers on mobile networks is diverted to TelOne, private mobile companies would be unable to raise foreign currency to settle bills with operators overseas.

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