Fri | Oct 20, 2017

Daniel Thwaites | Telecoms and privacy

Published:Sunday | January 22, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Why should Jamaicans be concerned about who is granted a telecommunications licence? It's not an issue that's quite as sexy as acrobatic Moravian pastors or the use of obeah as a crime-fighting technique, but it's something worth thinking about.

The circumstances surrounding the granting of telecommunication privileges and licences to Caricel require careful scrutiny, and I've already put some questions out there that I believe need answering by the current administration and, in some instances, by the previous one. But really, there's a background to all of that, and it also answers the question as to why the public should be aware, and concerned, about what is at stake.

For one thing, readers will want to know what Jamaican intelligence sources had to tell Jamaican politicians, and whether the politicians were minded to listen to the intelligence personnel. And if they were not, citizens are entitled to ask: Why not? Plus, without knowledge of the background, the public will be mystified about why this matter was something the USA and other security partners would have been so interested in, and those with imaginative minds will be more susceptible to crackpot conspiracy theories and other junk ideas about why telecommunication licensing is of extreme importance to national security.

 

REMINDERS

 

First, some more contextual reminders.

Quite apart from our local production and transportation of drugs, Jamaica has long been identified as a major trans-shipment point for illicit narcotics coming up from South America through the Caribbean Sea and heading to the lucrative North American market.

Does anyone need to be reminded that lotto scamming has been a major blight on Jamaica? Or that the organised crime around it has been linked to escalating crime rates across the country, but particularly in St James? Less often mentioned is that many people in North America, particularly the old and infirm, have been robbed and abused by the scamming.

Seeing as Jamaica doesn't manufacture guns, but is awash with them, the matter of the security of our coastline, and the porosity of our ports, have been on the table for a long time.

Then there's money laundering, an important part of the criminal economy. Governments have been cooperating more closely to impede it, but if there's an opening, it will find its way through it.

Next, we are all aware that crime continues to be a significant drag on the Jamaican economy. It is a hindrance and cost to operating businesses, a massive disincentive to people thinking of making or increasing investments, and it depletes our most precious resource - our people. To take some obvious examples, the enormous job opportunities in the BPO sector are at risk from lotto scamming. And tourists have many choices and will avoid places are unsafe.

So how does all of this connect with telecoms? And how does it connect to national security concerns?

To start with, telecoms companies have enormous amounts of power to affect the privacy of citizens and businesses. Therefore, there has to be a high level of confidence that they will abide by rules and regulations regarding these things. They must be law abiders.

There must be confidence that there won't be surveillance of people and organisations when it isn't specifically authorised, and that there will be proper surveillance when it is. Consider how dangerous it could be for all of us if criminals, or people willing to assist them, can detect and monitor the movement of law enforcement. Alternatively, consider how useful that information would be to people involved in criminal enterprise. But that is the kind of awesome power that telecoms companies have.

 

MOVING REVENUE

 

Furthermore, telecoms involve a lot revenue moving backwards and forwards between countries, and outside strict and constant auditing, it is very difficult to keep close tabs on it. It's basically a cash business, so it's perfect for money laundering. For the mechanically minded, let's say a telecoms licence is a money-laundering machine.

Of course, the security implications stretch beyond our national boundaries. There is nothing to stop a rogue telecoms provider, for instance, from providing impenetrably encrypted instruments by the thousands to ISIS fighters in the Middle East in exchange for large lodgements to the St Lucia company.

So it doesn't take too much imagination to see why those concerned with national security pay close attention to who holds telecoms licences. It also won't take too much head-scratching to see why Jamaica's peculiar susceptibility to crime makes our handling of telecoms licensing especially sensitive. After all, we are the lotto-scamming capital of the Western Hemisphere!

Clearly, we should be concerned that telecoms providers are owned and manned by people who can pass a test of fit and proper (as law requires), rather than just whether they have an open and ongoing investigation against them (as our brilliant Cabinet seems to have rather specifically asked)?

I am willing to wager that Jamaican national security intelligence officers were taking a keen interest in the efforts to grant the full suite of telecoms licences to Symbiote-Caricel. In time, I hope there will be a forum where they can express whether their concerns were being heeded by the political class, and if not, why not.

We know that the attempt to reverse the grant of the spectrum licence got under way, at least publicly, once the USA started cancelling visas. Well, if it turns out that the Americans were themselves only acting on information and intelligence that Jamaican security forces already possessed, but that our politicians were willing to ignore, it proves that the Jamaican political class love their visas more than their country. But I guess that's hardly news, is it?

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.