People who value their privacy are put through the wringer whenever the advocacy is in the spotlight and propped up against another important interest of the State, the general public, or both.
They are forced to examine their priorities and choose which one they prefer more. Unfortunately, they are seldom allowed access to all information they need to make a proper choice.
This has to change. If you’re going to ask people to surrender something, they have to know exactly how much they’re giving up, and what they’re giving it up for.
Today, let’s help make that happen regarding one recurring proposal in Congress: SIM card registration.
Last January 23, the Committee on Information Communication and Technology of the House of Representatives approved the substituted bill providing for a SIM Card Registration Act.
A mandatory SIM card registration system is an initiative constantly portrayed by proponents as necessary for national security and law enforcement despite all its negative implications, including the way it tramples on a person’s privacy. In most cases, people only get to hear about how this measure will supposedly help the police catch terrorists and criminals, or at the very least, discourage prank calls and spam text messages.
In truth, that’s not all there is to it. Here are five more things we should know about such a system:
- Crime-fighting Myth. The theory that SIM card registration is a boon for law enforcement has consistently been shown to be false by the experience of other countries. As has been demonstrated many times, criminals can circumvent this type of regulation. Worse, in some countries, registration actually causes a spike in the prevalence rate of some crimes (e.g., handset theft) and even facilitates the emergence of black markets (i.e., for stolen SIMs). A proposal to have such a system in Canada was quashed after consultations, when it could not be proven that crime reduction would result after its adoption. Mexico repealed its mandatory registration law after three years of implementation, after seeing no improvement in crime prevention, investigation, and/or prosecution.
- Specter of Surveillance. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this system is its potential use for surveillance. A SIM card registration law can essentially erase the possibility to enjoy anonymity of communications. It can enable location-tracking, and make communications surveillance and interception quite easy to carry out. As such, it is a threat to investigative journalists, whistle-blowers, witnesses, marginalized groups, and victims of discrimination and oppression. It is important to note that it becomes an even more potent tool once it is synchronized with a national ID system (but that’s for another article).
- Logistical Nightmare. SIM card registration is expensive and extremely difficult to implement not just on the part of mobile service providers, but for the concerned government agencies too. This is especially true for countries like the Philippines that has such a large population, most of whom are mobile phone users. In 2017, there were already around 129.4 million mobile subscriptions in the country, which accounts for 126% of the population. Creating and maintaining a database for these many subscriptions would entail very significant costs. In Nigeria, even after the government and the four telecom operators spent around $128M on their system, the telcos still experienced plenty of problems during implementation.
- Disenfranchising the Marginalized. Another lesser known but very relevant issue is how SIM card registration can also arrest and negatively impact legitimate mobile phone use. Logistical difficulties, financial costs, and the privacy risks connected with the registration process is sure to affect people’s purchase and use of SIM cards. This could potentially lead to some sectors or groups getting disincentivized or discriminated upon, as a consequence. Take the case of persons with limited mobility (e.g., handicapped, resident of remote areas, etc.) who will be placed at a clear disadvantage if registration requires personal appearance. Such a system would also exclude those without official identification—a fairly common scenario in developing countries that usually have poor identification systems. For example, in South Africa, mobile operators had their respective customer bases decrease after their mandatory SIM card registration system took effect.
- One Idea Too Late. Finally, there is the future of telecommunications wherein SIM cards themselves become obsolete. Telcos often point out that, given the way technology is developing right now, we may all be heading towards a future wherein phones and other related communication devices would no longer need a SIM card to operate. This prospect, they say, is almost already here. If this is true, we would all be investing on an elaborate and expensive system that’s anchored on something that may not be around for much longer.
These issues will hopefully make it to subsequent discussions in Congress. Responsible legislators should see to that. Those behind the current proposal, including law enforcement and the armed forces, should address them directly. Meanwhile, agencies like the National Privacy Commission and the Commission on Human Rights should be clear on where they draw the line. As part of the government, it is to be expected that they will concede some points and compromise. Nonetheless, their primary mandates demand that they stand firm in fighting for the rights of the people, particularly against any excesses that their peers in government may be guilty of.
Finally, one should remember that a good policy on a specific subject can only be hammered out if it is preceded by a balanced and comprehensive discussion of all issues among the different stakeholders involved. It should take into account every possible scenario it can give rise to, surface any latent problems, and provide for remedies and solutions, if negative consequences are unavoidable. Few policies get to do all these, of course. But rather than take it as a foregone conclusion, we should all see it as a challenge waiting to be overcome.
For additional information about this issue, you may also check out a briefing paper here.
Jamael Jacob is a lawyer specializing in the field of law, ICT, and human rights. He is currently the Director of the University Data Protection Office of the Ateneo de Manila University, and Policy and Legal Advisor to the Foundation for Media Alternatives. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the organizations he is currently affiliated with.