Thailand’s SIM Card Registration Drive Enters New Territory
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BANGKOK, THAILAND - 1998/01/01: A young Thai girl talks on her mobile phone in Bangkok. (Photo by Yvan Cohen/LightRocket via Getty Images Israel)

New SIM card registration measures in Thailand will prove controversial

Arguments for and against SIM card registration campaigns usually fall along security versus privacy fault lines. Thailand’s new proposal to make location tracking integral to prepaid SIM cards sold to foreign nationals, is no exception. In this initiative, and elsewhere, Thailand seeks to break new ground in the debate over SIM card registration, but there are major technical and legal hurdles to implementation.

“We would just facilitate the police. So they could more easily track foreigners who enter the country and commit crimes,” the Secretary General of the Office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) told reporters. Indeed, the possibility of using the tracker to pursue missing persons cases has already been raised.

Though the tracker will be an automatic function, the government says that service providers will still need a warrant to access customers’ location data. Even so, this point could prove to be a serious hurdle in enforcing the law.

According to GSMA, many of the benefits of SIM card registration, like better e-governance and online banking access, “can be achieved through the voluntary registration of mobile users.” Forced registration imposes problems of its own, in the form of increased red tape, the potential for privacy violations, and public resentment.

Further details have yet to be announced. Such as how the NBTC will deal with the workaround of getting someone with Thai citizenship to register a SIM card in their name for you. The Phuket office of the NBTC, in fact, told reporters in March that there is no legal limit on the number of SIM card purchases an individual can make, so long as they are properly registered.

There is also a loophole for anyone willing to pay roaming charges on their non-Thai SIM card. By default, these individuals will be opting out of the tracking requirement.

The bigger picture

Beyond the domestic scene, Thailand is a regional leader in SIM registration practices, and there too emphasizes the law enforcement angle. The government is also pushing an R&D project with the participation of Laos, Cambodia, and (possibly) Myanmar to develop “a mobile app to register prepaid phones using national identification cards and fingerprints.” This app would be valid across all four countries, and the NBTC says that it could be used to coordinate international law enforcement efforts.

Putting law and order matters aside for a moment, though, there are also economic reasons behind these efforts. Thai companies stand to benefit from expanded regional infrastructure in the case of the 4-country project. And within the domestic market, foreigners who do not want to, or cannot, pay mobile carriers’ roaming charges will have to purchase the prepaid cards.

This demographic includes budget tourists as well as some business travelers. But most of the people affected would probably be refugees and/or migrant workers, since these people cannot meet residency requirements or afford other options. This raises questions about how well their rights will be respected, especially if the data is ever leaked.

Privacy not guaranteed

Privacy protection is still the primary reason why SIM card registration is controversial. While SIM card registration laws were on the books in 80 countries in 2013, Privacy International reports that “SIM registration has been rejected after consultation in Canada, Czech Republic, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands and Poland.” Since then, additional countries have successfully adopted these measures, while others have rescinded them due to legal challenges or regulatory failures.

Even the security gains from the Thai efforts have been called into question. The most commonly cited reason driving Thai SIM card registration is that of stopping terrorists’ cellphone-detonated bombs. But it is difficult to quantify “success” in this regard since armed groups in Thailand have found other ways to remotely detonate bombs.

This said, Thailand has been successful in getting its own nationals to register prepaid SIM cards at the national level. A 2015 campaign to register all prepaid SIM cards sold in-country has brought the country much further along than its neighbors in this respect. But this process seriously called into question the competence of the entire undertaking: TelecomAsia reported how identity thieves found ways to profit at customers’ expense thanks to security flaws in the registration app the NBTC had directed Thais to use.

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