BTRC's letter: Why a private firm instead of the EC

There are various arguments regarding the government agencies asking for people’s personal information. Specific government agencies can ask for people’s personal information if needed. That too needs the highest level of security and caution.

In this context, the Prothom Alo report under the headline ‘Pressure from the govt to ensure business for a private firm’ is quite alarming. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) has sent letters to the mobile operators in the country repeatedly to develop a database with their client’s personal information from a service named ‘Parichay’.

However, the mobile operators have not agreed to develop such a database. They argue that private companies are not allowed to create any database containing personal information of the people according to the country's laws. Instead, they verify clients' information from the database of national ID cards maintained by the Election Commission (EC).

According to the Prothom Alo report, the BTRC sent letters to the mobile operators to develop the clients’ database last on 25 January. The letters asked the operators to take information from a service operated under the Bangladesh Computer Council (BCC). The service is operated by a private company named Digicon Technologies. Digicon gets a large portion of the income.

Allegations have surfaced suggesting that the BTRC is pressuring mobile operators to develop the database to ensure business for Digicon Technologies. The company has proposed a fee of Tk 10 per person for providing information, whereas the national ID card department offers the same information at a rate of Tk 5 per person.

On 18 January, the BTRC held a meeting with stakeholders regarding the issue. According to BTRC sources, representatives from law enforcement agencies stated during the meeting that they do not require assistance from mobile operators to access personal information of individuals.

At the same time, the Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh (AMTOB) also disagreed with the decision of the BTRC in a letter to BTRC.

The mobile operators verify the information given by the customers during buying a SIM card using the database of national ID cards currently under the jurisdiction of the Election Commission. They verify the biometrics of the customers through the national ID card database.

However, the BTRC ordered the mobile operators in a letter on 25 January that 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. The service is connected with the EC database of national ID cards. It means that Parichay will make a huge benefit using the EC database where the EC or the Bangladesh Computer Council (BCC) will get a negligible portion of the profit.

According to the decision taken up during the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Public Purchase in September 2022, Digicon will get 80 per cent of the revenue from the service of filling up forms automatically through the Parichay app, 86 per cent for verifying photos and 90 per cent of the revenue for verifying biometrics.

Ethically, the BTRC cannot issue any order for the benefit of some specific private agencies. At the same time, the question arises as to why a private agency will be allowed to make profit using a database preserved by the EC?

The statement from the state minister for the Ministry of Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology is not acceptable either. There are no reasons to put extra burden of expenditure on mobile operators in the name of a separate system to verify information, where the customer will have to bear the additional expenses in the end.

The most critical aspect to consider is that there have been numerous incidents involving the leaking of personal information belonging to individuals in the country. Despite these occurrences, there hasn't been a satisfactory explanation for the leaks from a government website.

Hence, the responsibility for maintaining and managing the database containing people's personal information, as well as providing services using that database, should solely rest with a competent government agency.

It is ethically unacceptable to compel private companies to create a database akin to the national one.