Philippines: SIM card listing as anti-crime tool, too good to be true
Defeated senatorial candidate Ruffy Biazon has again proposed the registration of Subscriber Identity Modules (SIM) cards in the Philippines, in an apparent response to their use as triggers in improvised explosive devices which police suspect to have been behind the Jan. 25, 2011 bus explosion in Makati City.
At the onset, it is important to note that many such proposals have been made in the form of bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate from 2001-2010. Like the text tax proposals, the SIM registration bills did not pass due to serious concerns raised by consumers, privacy and human rights watchdogs and telcos themselves.
But then, as now, it is easy to support the idea which looks simple and which promise miraculous results. Proponents also claim mandatory SIM registration would also help monitor income and profits of telcos.
Let’s take a closer look at whether SIM registration is possible (or impossible) in the Philippines and whether it could really make a dent in crime prevention and help in crime-fighting.
How to do it
If the idea is to tag each and all SIM cards with the identity of the owner, the government would have to require users of all types of mobile phones, mobile broadband and other devices that use SIM cards to register, fill up a form, and present an acceptable proof of identification.
Could registration be done via other means? Maybe but those might sacrifice proper identification of the owners and negate the desired effects. Laxity in the registration process, or when registrars accept false or doctored IDs, would doom the system.
There are already at least 80 million SIM cards in circulation and there may be more, considering the wide variety of mobile phones and devices that use SIM cards (dongles, tablets, fixed wireless landlines, fixed wireless broadband, and more) – how this registration would be done, which offices or stores would be deputized to handle the registration, the duration of registration and what documents would be acceptable as proof of identity, the proponents are consistently silent. Also bear in mind that not all Filipinos may have the acceptable types of proof of identification.
We also have 10 million OFWs, many of whom bring with them roaming-ready SIM cards, and an undetermined number of tourists and expats who bring to the Philippines their roaming SIM cards. Would there be a separate SIM card registration process for them?
Does the government have the capability and equipment to scan all incoming cargo, packages and persons who may be smuggling in one or several SIM cards into our porous borders or through the postal and courier systems?
Exceptions and exemptions
It is important to stress that, as an alleged crime-fighting tool, the SIM card registration proposal would only work if each and all SIM cards would be listed and tagged.
Any and all exceptions would be fatal to the system because exempted SIM cards would be closed to proper identification and open to abuse.
It is safe to assume that police and soldiers, especially the spying agencies, would apply for exemptions under all sorts of pretexts. Is it 100 percent impossible that scalawags among these law enforcers would sell their exempted SIM cards to criminal elements?
If proponents manage to present a workable plan for registration of all SIM cards (a very tall order, a complex problem), they would have to convince the public about the safety and security of all their personal information to be gathered by government.
Who will keep those records? Who will have full access to these records? Will court orders be required prior to prying open the records? What steps will be taken to secure the records?
Proponents claim that identifiable SIM cards would be a step forward in crime-fighting, but how that would happen in reality has not been told or explained. Would the police be given instant access to the SIM card identity database or would a court order be made a permanent requirement?
We could only imagine the costs of the registration process, as well as the maintenance and safeguarding of collected data. Who will shoulder these costs? The government? Telcos? Citizens?
How much would the telcos charge to “recalibrate” their system to accommodate, maintain and include identities and proof of identity into their subscriber records? Again, who will cover the costs?
Would criminals be deterred?
It is doubtful at best whether criminals would be deterred by the SIM card registration, in much the same way that other registration processes that tag identities to properties do not deter them.
Right now, SIM cards have no big value to criminal elements. But with mandatory registration, smuggling of roaming SIM cards and theft of such from good citizens would be of value to all criminal elements. We can only expect that upright citizens would be the first to register, and their mobile phones would be fair game to criminal elements who would take advantage of stolen SIM cards to continue their nefarious activities.
Cloning of SIM cards, which is reportedly now easy to do, would also be the rage among criminal elements, to the detriment of legitimate owners of the cloned cards. The cases of identity theft, which now afflict the “highly-secure” credit card industry may also afflict the mobile phone industry.
People who lose their identity documents open themselves to possible problems, with malcontents using those lost documents to register SIM cards.
Would the system be quick enough to un-tag SIM cards when their registered owners report loss or theft of their phones? We do not know (yet) and such an answer is not enough and not acceptable.
So what if others have done it
Proponents say that if Singapore and other countries were able to do it, why can’t the Philippines have all SIM cards registered as well.
Well, it is difficult or inappropriate to compare. Take the city-state of Singapore whose population and territory are tiny compared to ours. They also introduced SIM registration early on so by the time the mobile phone numbers boomed, the system was already in place.
If SIM card registration is truly that helpful or miraculous, all countries would have done it as well. But the United States, which is the target of many enemies, has not done so. We should find out why they are not at all bothered by it.
We also have yet to see success stories on the use of SIM card registration for crime-fighting in other countries. In places where such a system is in place, such as Kenya, criminal elements have reportedly discovered new ways to go around and cheat the system like using stolen or lost identity documents to register SIM cards. Such instances would ruin the system altogether by making it less reliable.
Could it be that the renewed passion of some for SIM card registration be an expression of our frustration that law enforcers have consistently failed to perform their job with distinction and with competence?
Because even if we manage to mount a successful, herculean effort to register all SIM cards, the project would amount to almost nil in the law enforcers’ tasks of investigating criminal acts and activities, especially if even a single SIM card manages to elude registration.
Criminal elements would never give up their identities. The assumption that they will use their own SIM cards to extort money, make threats, and trigger bombs is just plain crazy. They would never do so and perhaps depend on smuggled SIM cards, or those stolen from upright citizens, or those coming from law enforcers or those from government who avail of exemptions from the rule.
The Constitution is crystal clear on the issue of our fundamental right to privacy. The government has no business inserting itself in our bedrooms and in the privacy of our communications.
This SIM card registration proposal endangers this fundamental right to privacy of communications as the government becomes a new and third party to the contracts we consent to when buying or using SIM cards from any of the telcos. So far, proponents have made no suggestions on safeguards to the privacy, security and safety of all collected information.
Critics of government, a natural part of any functioning democracy, may feel threatened by the prospect of surveillance, especially now when government and security forces have mistaken notions of who are the enemies of the state. For a country that suffered so much under a dictatorship, we must renew our pledge to fight any and all steps of government to invade our privacy.
More meaningful steps
We can only refer to credit cards and the companies that issue them. Their drive towards greater security is relentless but criminals are quick to the draw and eventually discover ways to break whatever hindrances to abuse and illegal use are put in place.
The same is true for mandatory car registration. Yes, all cars must be registered to ensure owner identification and accountability, but car plates and whole fleets of cars have known to be stolen. Identifiers in cars’ chassis and body could be erased. But that doesn’t mean police should do more and, instead, be a step ahead towards dismantling the syndicates behind those crimes.
Instead of wasting precious time, effort and money on SIM registration, let us cooperate to empower citizens to unite towards protecting our communities, cities and the country.
As to finding out whether telcos are honest in reporting their income and revenues, and consequently, paying the right taxes to government, the National Telecommunications Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission, and Congress could quickly find the answers to their questions by merely summoning their books and records, or performing unannounced visits and surprise audits.
The Philippines would be better off with spending time, effort and money to setting up a forensics lab and training forensics experts so the Philippine National Police would be able to use scientific tools to help investigate crimes and speed up the identification and prosecution of suspects.
More training opportunities may be needed by crime investigators and those who are in involved in crime-fighting operations, because they form the most important layer of protection of Filipinos against those who wish to commit crimes against persons and the Republic. We should take steps to ensure better protection of witnesses to encourage them to come forward and to testify.
A single or a handful of unregistered, smuggled or stolen SIM cards would render it ineffective, and the government would have in its control a whole database of our identities and other SIM card information, which they don’t deserve under our laws and Constitution.
Indeed, the so-called logic and practicality of SIM card registration for whatever purpose are just to good to be true.
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