'Pressure from the govt' to ensure business for a private firm

Logo of BTRC

The telecom service providers have been issued letters repeatedly to develop a database with their client’s personal information from a service named ‘Parichay’. The database will include the client’s name, national ID card number, names of their parents, date of birth, address, gender, occupation and a photograph.

The mobile operators, however, are not interested in developing such a database. They say that private companies cannot create any database containing personal information of the people as the laws of the country do not allow that. They verify the client's information from the database of national ID cards of the Election Commission (EC).

The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) on 25 January sent the last of the series of letters to the mobile operators to develop the database. The letters asked the operators to collect the information from a service operated under the Bangladesh Computer Council (BCC). The service is operated by a private company, Digicon Technologies, which gets a large portion of the income from this service.

There are allegations that the BTRC is forcing the mobile operators to develop the database to ensure a business for Digicon Technologies. The company has asked Tk 10 per head for providing information, which is provided by the national ID card department at a rate of Tk 5 per head.

The BTRC has asked to develop the database citing preventing criminal activities. They say a person uses different SIM cards under different names for criminal activities. Such a database will help the law enforcement agencies identify the people involved in crimes.

A separate system to verify information has been introduced to ensure that people can get the services more easily. Small companies are easily served through it
Junaid Ahmed, state minister for ICT

The BTRC held a meeting with the stakeholders over the issue on 18 January. According to the BTRC sources, the representatives from the law enforcement agencies said in the meeting that they don’t need any help from the mobile operators for personal information of the people.

After that, the BTRC said the mobile operators won’t have to develop the database. However, the BTRC in its 25 January letter asked the mobile operators to collect information of people and preserve them.

The BTRC authorities told Prothom Alo in a statement in writing on Monday that the BTRC on 6 February ordered the mobile operators to implement the ‘autofilling of electronic telecommunication customer registration form’ as per the decision taken during the commission's meeting on 3 November 2021. As part of this, the letters were sent to the mobile operators on 25 January.

In response, the Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh (AMTOB) sent a letter to the BTRC saying, “We are surprised not to see the decision taken during the meeting reflected in the subject of the letter.”

The identity of ‘Parichay’

The mobile operators collect information from the customers while selling SIM cards. In the letter issued on 25 January, the BTRC said the forms have to be filled up automatically. People’s personal information must be collected through the BCC National Digital Architecture (BNDA). Parichay is a service provided by the BNDA, which was launched in July, 2019.

Only the government has the jurisdiction to manage and maintain people’s confidential information. It’s not prudent to give the contract of some specific sensitive projects to the private sector
Abu Sayeed Khan, senior policy fellow, LIRNEasia

According to the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Division, Parichay is a gateway server which is connected to the national database of the Election Commission (EC). It provides services to verify National ID card, birth registration, mobile numbers and photos. The service will include verifying the passport and driving licenses in the coming days.

Parichay said that they have verified information of 190 million people for more than 200 clients so far.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Digicon Technologies managing director Wahed Sharif said they only provide technological services. They don’t have access to the database of national ID cards. He claimed Parichay got the contract through the direct purchase method (DPM).

Digicon Technologies has accomplished several government projects in the IT sector. The company’s sister concern Techcity BD has got the contract for the management of the Sheikh Hasina Software Technology Park in Jashore. The company earns a large portion of the revenue from there as well. Digicon has operated different training programmes under the ICT Division and different agencies under this.

The BTRC have been sending letters to the mobile operators for developing the database collecting information from Parichay. Till now, the mobile operators have avoided the order citing different reasons.

However, it came to the fore again after Junaid Ahmed took over as the state minister for the Ministry of Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology again. He spoke about implementing the plan right after taking over.

Speaking regarding this, state minister Junaid Ahmed said on 18 February that a separate system to verify information has been introduced to ensure that people can get the services easily. Small companies can be easily served through it.

He said that the service is being provided in compliance with the laws of the country.

Speaking regarding giving a private company the contract related to people’s personal information, the ICT state minister said the government doesn’t want to do any business on its own.

A large portion of revenue goes to Parichay

According to the decision taken up during the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Public Purchase in September 2022, Digicon Technologies will get 60 per cent of the revenue coming from the service provided through the Parichay app, while the EC and the ICT division will get 20 per cent each.

However, Digicon will get 80 per cent of the revenue from the service of filling up forms automatically, 86 per cent for verifying photos and 90 per cent of the revenue for verifying biometrics.

Asked why the Digicon was given this contract under the direct purchase method without any competition, Tarique M Barkatullah, the then director (data centre) of the BCC, told Prothom Alo, “During the coronavirus pandemic, we saw the government grants for the people suffering financially due to the pandemic had been sent to different mobile numbers used by the same person.”

“Digicon said at the time that they could solve the problem through verifying. That is why they got the work,” he added.

There are high risks of nepotism in the direct purchase method. Therefore, it is hardly used for government procurements.

Former director general of the Central Procurement Technical Unit (CPTU) of the government, Faruk Hossain, told Prothom Alo that the ratio of the revenue that Parichay gets may raise questions.

The main difference between the services provided by the EC and Parichay is that the private company also verifies photos of the users.

Asked why the EC doesn’t provide the photo verification service, system manager of National Identity Registration Division at the EC, Muhammad Ashraf Hossain, told Prothom Alo that the process of verifying fingerprints is unique, which is not the case for photo verification.

IT experts say that the EC can add photo verification to their services if it wants. It’s not that tough task, rather it would have increased their income.

Expenditure to 'rise'

The mobile operators say they will have to pay more to get the service from Parichay. Adding to that is the cost for the development and maintenance of the database. Although there is no need of having such a database, the people will have to bear the cost of it. They also raised questions as to why to take the service from a private agency when it is available from a government agency.

Speaking regarding this, telecommunication research agency LIRNEasia’s senior policy fellow Abu Sayeed Khan told Prothom Alo only the government has the jurisdiction to manage and maintain people’s confidential information. It’s not prudent to give the contract of some specific sensitive projects to the private sector.

The national database is under the jurisdiction of the EC. The home ministry is going to maintain the database in the future. Why the ICT Division will be given the task to verify information, he said adding that the foundation of Parichay created doubts and had ulterior motives. There might be some business interests behind this.

* This report appeared on the print and online versions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ashish Basu