Thursday, January 27, 2011

Registering Prepaid SIMs....

PhotobucketI'm not really a fan of Senator Tito Sotto, but I have to agree with him on this point.

Prepaid Subscriber Identity Modules used in cellphones, otherwise known as SIM cards, or just SIMs, should be registered.

The number of every prepaid SIM should be stored in a database, maintained by the network provider, along with the name of its primary user, and his or her address and/or other relevant information.

In the years that have followed the introduction of prepaid cellphone services, prepaid SIMs have become prevalent in the commission of various criminal acts, such as facilitating illegal transactions, text scams, the sending of death threats, extortion, kidnapping for ransom, and recently, as an instrument of terror.

Two days ago, an improvised explosive device or IED was planted and detonated inside a public bus along EDSA in Makati City. As of now, 5 have been confirmed dead because of the explosion, and around 13 injured. Authorities have identified the explosive device used as an 81 mm mortar shell, triggered by a Nokia 5310 cellphone.

Let's face it. Prepaid SIMs are standard tools of criminals. And why not? They're cheap, easy to procure, disposable, and 100% anonymous. Anonymity is clearly a criminal's best friend, for the simple reason that a criminal whose identity is unknown cannot be made to answer for the crimes that he or she may have committed.

Communication is considered by many societies (except the repressive ones of course) as a basic right. I agree with that, but it should not be absolute. As with all other rights, it cannot and should not be used as a means to perpetrate a crime or to commit an injustice against another person. It is in this context that communication should be regulated, particularly in pushing for the compulsory registration of all prepaid SIM cards.

Hypothetically, how can the registration of SIM cards be facilitated? Here are some possible scenarios:

  • Require that all new SIM card purchases be registered by a reasonable date. Ex. Starting January 1, 2012, all new prepaid SIM card purchases should be registered before activation;

  • Registration may be done by filling up a registration form containing at the very least the name and address of the registrant. At least two (2) identification cards should be submitted/shown to validate the information submitted;

  • After the sale has been completed, the retailer should submit the accomplished forms to the network provider for entry into its database, after which the SIM is activated within a reasonable amount of time...say, 24 hours;

  • For prepaid cards currently in use, require that they should be registered on or before a reasonable deadline. Ex. All current prepaid SIMs should be registered with their respective network providers on or before January 1, 2012;

  • On registration, the owner shall fill up a registration form and submit/show at least two (2) identification cards for validation. This registration information is forwarded to the network provider;

  • If the deadline passes and the prepaid SIM is not registered, it is automatically deactivated by the network provider.

Admittedly, this will generate additional overhead for the network provider, in terms of modifications to their software, additional encoding time and data storage, but I'm pretty sure they can afford it. Seriously, do you know of any network provider losing money? They may have lost some revenue due to competition and preference for unlimited services, but they nonetheless generate hefty sums. As for the modifications to their systems, I'm sure they can manage. They frequently come up with new promos for their subscribers which require modifications as well, so they cannot deny that they have the capability to make the necessary modifications if prepaid SIMs are to registered. Encoding time? Entering a name and address and checking identification cards shouldn't take long. Yes, the time will add up in the course of numerous prepaid SIM sales, but it should still be manageable. Storage space? I'm sure they can afford to buy another hard drive...or solid state drive...or server...or two.

Civil rights and privacy advocates are apprehensive over registering prepaid SIMs, arguing that this may violate constitutional rights. Even President Aquino seems reluctant:

"With the propensity for hacking, made worse by obsolete wiretapping laws, there a big possibility that this could invade privacy, which is enshrined in Article 3 of the Constitution"

Frankly, I think that's a lot of bull. Postpaid subscribers are already registered, and none of them consider it an affront to their privacy even though all of their calls and messages are already logged for billing purposes. It can't be argued that prepaid SIM registration is anti-poor, for the reasons that even wealthy people use prepaid SIMs, and that those who can afford postpaid plans are already registered. I simply can't see why registration is seen as a threat to privacy for prepaid SIMs, yet it isn't for postpaid accounts. Just plain hypocrisy if you asked me.

Inaction due to fear of something which may or may not happen doesn't really fill me with confidence in the leadership of President Aquino. I consider myself a Noynoy fan...but being afraid of doing something because of a mere possibility reeks with cowardice. If wiretapping laws are indeed obsolete...then push for their amendment instead of using them as an excuse. It's like saying we shouldn't deposit in banks anymore because we can't totally prevent bank robberies.

We already register real property, vehicles, firearms, utilities, postpaid cellular services. So what's the big deal about registering prepaid SIMs anyway? The additional overhead far outweighs the potential benefits as far as crime prevention and law enforcement are concerned.

As for privacy issues, just like the security and inviolabilty of our homes and communications, phone records cannot be disclosed without a court order. The
Constitution ensures that.

Will registering prepaid SIMs eliminate crime or terrorism? No it won't. But it will give criminals and terrorists one less place to hide behind...and a way to trace those who still insist on using them for their nefarious purposes.

Personally, I don't mind giving up some of my concerns regarding privacy in order to ensure the public safety, but that's just me. I already subscribe to a postpaid plan, so it's all the same to me. For those who insist this is too high a price to pay, that privacy should be safeguarded above everything else...just ask anyone who has been harassed or threatened through SMS...or those who were victimized by text scams...or those who lost someone dear to them in that tragic event two days ago. I'm guessing they will tend to disagree.

Links:

Text scams....

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