6 reasons why RICA is a waste of everyone’s time and money

The deadline has passed, the nagging is over, and (most) people are now registered with RICA. Most of us still aren’t sure why we had to register at all. The truth is RICA is a pointless exercise, even by the extremely low standards of other red tape.

The Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act, better known as RICA, does just what its full name suggests: it regulates interception of communications by our government. In other words, it allows them to “listen in” to communications like cell phone calls where they deem it necessary, and to keep track of communications between people (such as how often person X phoned person Y on Z day). 

As with so many laws, it has the best of intentions. Criminals use cellphones to plan and coordinate crimes, particularly high profile robberies and armoured car hijackings. So, make everyone who has a SIM card register their name and address, and you can track the criminals. Brilliant, right?

Wrong. Like FICA before it, RICA is an attempt to legislate an issue into submission. But the practical application and enforcement is so full of gaping holes that the law was hamstrung before it was even enacted. There are many reasons for this impotence, but here are the six most critical ones:

1. Proof of address is a joke

A regulation system is only as good as its weakest link, and in this case proof of address is that link. What constitutes proof of address? A utility bill, a bank statement, a lease agreement or a letter from a landlord or employer (as well as some more exotic options). 

Sounds reasonable right? Yes, except that any of these documents may be up to three months old. Criminals aren’t known for maintaining fixed addresses, and so a three-month-old document may be three addresses ago. 

And there’s precious little checking of said documents. When you registered for RICA, did anyone phone your bank or your landlord to check your statement or lease was valid? I thought not. 

Any criminal with a R1,800 netbook and a R600 scanner can fake a Telkom bill. And these aren’t street criminals we’re after, remember, these are the guys who hit armoured cars and rob banks. They have resources, intelligence, organisational skills and strong incentives. A fake lease is a mere speedbump to these guys.

2. Identity documents are easily faked or bought

ID documents are slightly more challenging and expensive to obtain, but have most of the same weaknesses as proof of address documents. Our Home Affairs department is, unfortunately, shot through with corrupt officials. The situation seems to have improved recently, but a determined criminal will find a way to get their hands on a fake ID of some kind.

And even if Home Affairs were magically rehabilitated overnight, ID documents can still be faked. Did anyone scan your barcode when you registered? Did anyone painstakingly check that your photo hadn’t been swapped out for another? No? How surprising.

3. Multiple SIM cards are allowed

There’s no practical limit on the number of SIM cards any one person can obtain. This means a criminal can register scores of SIMs with five different providers and simply change cards each week or even each day.

4. It has created a market for SIM cards

Remember those traffic lights in Joburg that stopped working because their SIM cards had been stolen? Most people assumed the thieves wanted free calls, but it’s just as likely that they wanted registered SIM cards.

What’s more, criminals need not even go to all the trouble of stealing or registering their own SIMs. Street vendors are already selling RICA’d cards. SIMs used to be worth a few cents, now they are worth good money. All that a vendor needs to spend is a little time at the local recharge kiosk. And criminals won’t be the only people tempted to avoid RICA registration. 

Sure, selling registered SIMs is illegal, but so is speeding, urinating in public, selling fake DVDs, jaywalking and hawking without a license. The cops have better things to do than bust hawkers for peddling shady SIMs.

5. No one is going to report a “stolen” SIM card

In theory a street vendor could be held liable if a SIM in his or her name is used during a crime. But how practically applicable is that? They could simply claim that their SIM card was stolen. 

And, yes, they have a duty to report such a “theft” to the local police, but let’s be serious here: does anyone really see that happening? “Oh yes, officer, I’ve trekked across town and waited in line for 30 minutes to tell you that R1.50’s worth of SIM cards was stolen from me today. Oh yes, please, lets fill out a full crime report.”

6. Enforcement costs will be prohibitive

Let’s assume that our already stretched organs of policing and justice are completely committed to upholding this law. Do we have enough police officers to catch all these RICA offenders, even if that were their only duty? I highly doubt that, just as I highly doubt they could ever completely stamp out littering.

No doubt RICA will be marginally useful to the police in being able to record calls between suspected criminals, but without a way to definitive link those SIMs to their owners, this is of limited use in getting them convicted. 

If they catch the robbers or hijackers red handed and confiscate their phones, then RICA may be useful. Probably less probative though, than the stolen cash boxes, AK47s and security camera footage.

Remind me again what the point was?

The most common retort to all of my arguments is “Well, at least it’s better than nothing.” But that’s the thing – it really isn’t. All RICA does is give us a false sense of security that bad guys can be tracked down. 

If it had cost us nothing and worked 10% of the time it might be worth it. But RICA appears to have cost billions (particularly if you include all the costs the networks absorbed) and we’ll be lucky if it works 1% of the time. Surely there’s a cheaper way to catch criminals?

I’m well aware that RICA is about lot more than just tracking criminals, and that it regulates an entire sector of society. It makes phone tapping by private investigators and voicemail hacking by journalists explicitly illegal. This is a good thing. It also makes it harder for the state to abuse its power by regulating its ability to intercept our communications. Also a good thing.

The problem is that most ordinary people will benefit from none of these things. Instead they will be forced to jump through pointless bureaucratic hoops – none of which are needed by the sensible portions of RICA.

So in the end RICA, like FICA, makes ordinary people’s lives more difficult and accomplishes few of its high ideals. That, to me, is the definition of bad legislation.