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Sunday, October 19, 2008

UK plan to register prepay SIMs: sensible law enforcement or hapless Big Brother-ism?

According to the Sunday Times today, the UK Government is planning to enforce registration of all SIM cards and new mobile subscriptions (the article suggests that phones will need registration, but I suspect that's an error). This is being suggested as a means of combating terrorism and other crime.

I'm fairly sure that we will see a huge backlash from the UK civil liberties lobby. Some readers outside the UK may be unaware that Britain has a rather contradictory set of views on privacy and anonymity. We don't have to carry driving licences when we're behind the wheel (they didn't even have photos until a few years ago). In fact, we don't have to carry any form of ID - and even if the Government manages to avoid its usual incompetence in large IT projects and finally forces its evil and hideously expensive ID scheme on us, we still won't need to actually carry the things around.

But on the other hand, we have an huge bureaucracy of megalomaniacs and paranoiacs, and so we have the highest penetration of CCTV cameras on the planet. We have roads festooned with speed cameras and automated number-plate readers. We have refuse bins equipped with chips to ensure they're not overfilled. And traffic wardens can issue tickets remotely, zooming in on offenders from overhead cameras.

We regard anonymity as a right - those vocal few who claim that "only those with something to hide" will be worried, are those suburban curtain-twitchers without lives interesting enough to have any secrets.

(Of course, UK anti-terrorism laws are never used for purposes beyond their original intentions. And all data held by the UK government is, naturally, 100% secure)

But maybe a SIM database isn't a bad idea? Plenty of other countries already demand that mobile users are registered - among them Australia, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Norway, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, and Thailand (and I think Italy and Spain as well).

I'm in two minds about this. Like most people in the UK, I like the idea of anonymity, but don't always practice what I preach. I use a credit card to top up my Oyster travelcard, rather than cash. I've registered my prepay data SIM so I can use data and outbound email. I've got a new biometric passport.

In general, I'm supportive of law enforcement where it's needed. I live in central London and I'm as aware of the threats of terrorism as anyone. But I don't want to make it too easy for the authorities to get "casual" access to my data, because government tends to have a lot of "feature creep". I don't want my phone(s)' records linked to my car registration, giving our tax-hungry leaders a way of doing vehicle-tracking and road-pricing by the back door, for example. And I'm a bit wary of what happens when the database shows that I have 4 SIM cards, given that I've seen police-issued posters on the Tube suggesting that citizens should be "suspicious" of anyone with three or more phones. "Excuse me Sir, are these all your phones and modems? Would you please step this way?" is not something I want to be confronted with every time I'm at the airport.

And in any case, I'm really not certain this approach would work. There are so many loopholes it's clear to me that anyone up to serious misbehaviour would have no problem circumventing the system - using an anonymous foreign SIM, most obviously. I can think of various others but I'm not going to write them down here for obvious reasons. I've written before about the likely future break between SIM and individual identity.

Obviously there's quite a long way between a leaked idea in a newspaper, and actual implementation, not least a possible general election. But, pessimistically, I have a suspicion that this is likely to be implemented in law anyway, in which case it's absolutely critical that it's handled in such a way as to avoid the downsides I describe above.

Mind you, I'm just looking forward to seeing the registration process and database entry for this.


Mo said...

The idea of SIM registration would probably garner some support if there was any evidence at all that it would be worthwhile; everything I've seen on the subject is talking as though pre-paid phones are a newfangled invention, that VoIP doesn't exist, and payphones can't be found… well, anywhere, even if not on every street corner.

In terms of cost/benefit, the actual benefit part of it hasn't been disclosed. In terms of the cost, there's been no word on what they would do with all of the existing SIMs out there–given that they account for over half of all SIMs in the UK.

Finally, lots and lots of people don't have photo ID, especially amongst the poorer demographics who are more likely to have a prepaid phone. I suppose the "solution" to this would be the compulsory ID cards…

David Chambers said...

You'll be pleased to learn that this piece of legislation has been dropped from the Queen's speech (and therefore this years program) due to more pressing matters, like dealing with the credit crunch.