Experts warn on risks of mandatory SIM card registration

Published January 27, 2021, 6:17 PM

by Vanne Elaine Terrazola

Telecommunications and privacy experts warned the Senate on Wednesday that the proposed mandatory SIM card registration could pose risks to free speech and privacy.

(photo from Pixabay)

The Senate public services committee led by Senator Grace Poe discussed the bills seeking to require prepaid mobile phone users to register their subscriber identity module, or SIM cards, as a way to deter crimes.

“We must be careful in considering the implementation of SIM registration,” engineer Pierre Galla, founder of internet and ICT rights advocacy group Democracy.Net.Ph, said during the hearing.

While 155 countries have already adopted the mandatory SIM registration, Galla said that the proposal might end up being “useless and an additional problem, instead of a solution.”

The mandatory SIM registration, he said, helped countries who used the policy for mobile commerce and mobile governance, but not countries who implemented it for crime-fighting.

He cited for instance Mexico, which repealed in 2012 their law on the SIM registration, passed in 2009, after it was “found to be ineffective” and “created various new illicit and illegal activities such as black market SIM trading, SIM cloning, SIM spoofing, petty theft or robbery of phones for SIMs inside them”.

He added that the European Commission of the European Union had concluded that “SIM registrations provided no benefit to assisting criminal investigations” of its member-states.

He also said it was also “abused” by governments and law enforcement agencies to conduct surveillance and monitoring “for political, religious and even ethnic and racial persecution.”

“While it can be implemented for cases such as banking the unbanked and providing government services to the underserved, it restricts the space for free expression; for fearless, fair and free journalism; for the democratic principles of unfettered organization and communication and for the right of citizens to be left alone to express themselves freely to others,” Galla said.

Ivy Grace Villasoto, director of the National Privacy Commission’s (NPC) privacy policy office, also raised the concern that the mandatory SIM registration could result in increased instance of data breach in the country.

“It should be emphazed also that the implementation of the system will entail massive collection of personal data nationwide. This may result in heightened risk of personal data breaches, unauthorized processing intrusion into the privacy of people and restriction of other rights and freedoms,” Villasoto said.

She added it could also result in the exclusion of vulnerable groups and geographically remote individuals who would not be able to have their SIM cards registered, since some of the bills propose that failure to register within a prescribed period would authorize telecommunication service providers to cut off their services to the unregistered prepaid subscriber.

Aside from this, Villasoto said government would be compelled to rely heavily on honesty pending the full rollout of the national ID system since there may be no immediate way to vet if the information and documents that the subscribers submitted are accurate and true.

Echoing Galla, she said “there is no really empirical evidence yet that proves that mandatory SIM card registration directly leads to the reduction of crimes.”

“So this warrants po a more judicious assessment if indeed a SIM card registraton system will curb criminality or prevent or deter terrorism,” the NPC official said.

Defending the proposal, Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, who filed a bill on the matter, said that requiring phone users to register their SIM cards would deter crimes such as online fraud, scams, and other organized crimes that utilize anonymous prepaid phone numbers.

Officials of the Department of Justice, National Bureau of Investigation, and the Philippine National Police supported the proposal, saying this would help them identify those behind the crimes and track down their location.

Telecommunication companies Globe, Smart and Dito also welcomed the measure, but asked the lawmakers to consider possible challenges in its implementation.

“While we look at other countries for their experiences and their models, we have to listen to our own law enforcement agencies because they are accountable to us when it comes to safety and order. And we have to give them the tools in order for them to resolve cases,” Gatchalian said.

“Reporting cases is the easy part but finding the perpetrators,  the criminals, is the most difficult part. And without tools, it would be virtually impossible for them to resolve all of these cases,” he added.

“Definitely, this is not the only solution but this is one of the tools that our law enforcement agencies can use,” Gatchalian maintained.

The senator recently fell victim to hacking wherein his credit card was used to buy P1 million worth of alcoholic beverage from a food delivery service app. He said the perpetrators can no longer be traced because they used a prepaid SIM card.