Access to phone records were key in the recent arrest of suspects in the murder of kidnapped Enmore businessman Rajendra Singh and sources say the success rate of the Guyana Police Force (GPF) can be much higher if the two local telephone providers are more cooperative.
To date, there are three known cases where the sleuths were able to use telephone records to zero in on suspects and place them before the courts. The first case was that of the 2010 murder of New Amsterdam taxi driver Trevor Kissoon, which was a challenge for investigators, who had to move to the High Court before Digicel handed over the phone records. The second was an airport drug bust investigation, in which police were able to use text messages to build their case. The third was the recent kidnapping and murder of Singh.
Police, with the help of Digicel and GT&T, were able to arrest six men and a woman based on phone numbers that were allegedly used to make ransom calls to the man’s wife. Five of these persons were subsequently charged while the other two were released. Police have in the past complained about the reluctance of providers to respond favourably to requests for records.
When contacted, a senior official at GT&T said the company complies with the requests based on the law. The law was amended to address the fact that cellular phones are used by criminals to facilitate the planning and commission of crimes. The official said the company can only issue information based on a request from the Commissioner of Police or as a result of a High Court order.
Stabroek News on Saturday tried contacting Digicel’s CEO Gregory Dean for comment but was informed by an official that he was out of the country. The official explained that there have been no complaints from the police about the company’s response to requests for records but stated that Dean would be the better person to elaborate.
“The process is a written request comes from the Crime Chief or Commissioner of Police to the attention of the CEO requesting the necessary information. He in turn gives the directive that the information be released and this is sent back to the Commissioner’s Office for the attention of the Commissioner,” the official said.
“Once it goes through the right process, the information is always forwarded to the Commissioner’s Office. This I know is what has been in place and has been working. I am not sure what rejection anyone talks about unless they are not using the correct protocol,” the official added.
A source close to the police force told Stabroek News recently that the police can do more but only if the two telecommunication service providers are fully on board. The source explained that too often there are applications for phone records that have not been answered.
It was emphasised that in many high-profile cases where there is a belief that phone records can be useful, police go the extra mile to apply for them. The source said police usually get cooperation from one provider but the other is generally very reluctant and though it always insists on a request in writing, the records are sometimes still not handed over. “When the police are delayed like this, it affects the entire investigation,” the source said, while explaining that there is legislation in place that gives the police the right to access records.
When the force is in need of information from the providers, it is the Crime Chief who would write a letter to the service provider outlining what is needed and for what purpose, this newspaper was told.
The Telecommunications Act states that a service provider must store the particulars and all information relating to any SIM card for five years and must release this information to the police once the SIM card is the subject of a criminal investigation.
According to the explanatory the bill that was eventually enacted, it is “compulsory” for the telecommunications service providers of SIM cards and mobile cellular phone services to establish at their own cost “a system of recording and storing particulars” of the SIM cards and mobile cellular phones and the customers using the SIM cards or mobile cellular phones services.
It is also stated clearly in the Act that the licensee shall record and store, for a period of five years, the mobile subscriber integrated service digital network number (MSISDN number) or any equivalent identification number of the SIM card that is to be activated or reactivated; the international mobile equipment identity number (IMEI number) of the mobile cellular phone that is to be used; details pertaining to the persons who request that the SIM be activated or reactivated and the details of the “transactions of persons calling and person receiving calls and the time and duration of the calls.”
The Act also states that the licensee shall ensure that the facility in or on which the information is recorded and stored is secure and only accessible to persons “specifically designated or authorised by the licensee and the Police on request.”
The source close to the police force said that in the recent case involving the kidnapped businessman, information was provided by the two companies but the police still had to seek additional help to trace the location of one of the numbers. According to the source, “this should not be” since both service providers must be in a position to assist the police in all aspects of the investigation when it comes to the records. The source said that although the providers have the ability to ascertain which instrument a call was made from, their assistance to the police falls short. “There is more the police can do but they need support from these two companies,” the source said, while expressing certainty that if there is a change in their attitude there are many cases that will be solved.
The source said the excuse is always that there will be an invasion of privacy. But, according to the source, with the legislation in place this should not be an issue, once the records are sought as part of a criminal investigation.
Invasion of privacy
However, others believe there is some merit to concerns about the invasion of privacy.
A security source knowledgeable about the situation explained that it is generally felt that there is more cooperation from GT&T, which was partially owned by government, than the privately-owned Digicel, which would have to assure its customers that privacy is paramount.
The source said that privacy will always be an issue as one has to be convinced that the police’s request for the records is a reasonable one.
“How do they [the service provider] know what they [the police] want the records for the number for? The police can come and say they want your number for some crime investigation but that is just their words. How are you to be convinced that they are telling the truth?” the source questioned, while noting that the issue of the invasion of privacy should not be taken lightly, especially when taking politics and other factors into consideration.
“This is Guyana you are dealing with. These things could be accessed on the assumption that it will be used for valid purposes and then it is not,” the source pointed out, while arguing that there will only be cooperation if there is some safety mechanism in place to ensure that the records are not abused and are used only for the stated purposes.
“You can’t sacrifice the privacy of people to catch criminals…. In this information age, privacy is being violated,” the source said, while noting that the reluctance by a provider is understandable to some extent. “That company is a private entity and has to be concerned about customers and that is where the problem lies. They just want to be certain that it [the request] is justified.”
The source added that such a request has to be put on firm footing where the entity itself cannot be brought into disrepute for cooperating with the police. “This needs to be looked at seriously. There must be some mechanism in place to offer some sort of protection. We have to be careful,” the source stressed.
According to the source, law enforcement takes time and there should be no rush to access people’s private information without first exploring all the available options. “The rights of people are important and need to be safe guarded. You can’t violate the rights of citizens. You have to be very careful with what you do in terms of law enforcement,” the source said, while adding that the innocent need to be protected.
The source also argued that suspicion is not a good enough reason to violate anyone’s privacy but conceded that kidnapping cases may require a different consideration since a life is at stake and the main aim is to find the victim alive. In such a case, the source said it’s all about “time verses privacy” and using records in this regard is understandable as the investigators may be dealing with tracing a ransom call.