Editorial: Mandatory SIM card registration: Prelude to a surveillance state?

Editorial: Mandatory SIM card registration: Prelude to a surveillance state?

Amid the onslaught of fraudulent text messages, lawmakers have made their moves to make mobile subscriber identity module or SIM card registration mandatory.

The chances of the proposed SIM Card Registration Act becoming a full-fledged law are now getting brighter, despite the opposition from human rights groups. This development came following the Congress’ Bicameral Conference Committee’s approval of the legislation.

Sen. Grace Poe, the bill’s principal author, said the proposed law would help authorities “to unmask criminals who have been hiding for so long under the protection of anonymity, and to bring them to justice.”

The last hurdle for the legislation is the ratification of both the Senate and House of Representatives, which is a mere formality. After this, the consolidated bill will be submitted to President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. for his signature. If not vetoed, the bill would become a law.

Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, vetoed the SIM Card Registration bill in April this year due to the inclusion of social media providers in the registration requirement that was not part of the bill’s original version. The legislation’s current incarnation does not carry that provision anymore.

The talk about the mandatory SIM card registration is not new. Thirteen years ago, Philstar.com ran a text poll, asking its readers whether they were for it or not.

The readers’ views were mixed. Some favored the mandatory registration, saying it was not only good for national security but it also would “discourage pranksters and nuisance callers and texters.” Another reader said the registration “must include the user name, password, as well as the serial number of the card. Furthermore, it should also establish the name and locality of the retailer from which the card was bought, as well as the name of the agency affiliated with it.”

Some of the poll participants who were not in favor said it was an affront to their privacy, it “cannot solve the problem of national security if the police and military are sleeping on the job,” and “criminal elements will only find other ways to communicate.”

This was during the administration of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose administration had to deal with political instability and allegations of corruption, and communist insurgency and terrorism.

Over a decade after the Arroyo administration, the Philippines is in a different landscape—more people are hooked on social media where fake news is more rampant than ever and circulated fast; and more individuals have become dependent on the internet where not all corners are safe.

If the SIM Registration bill becomes a law, how can the national government ensure that the personal data of Filipinos are protected?

The bill directs telcos to establish a system of SIM registration, and it also provides provisions of confidentiality and non-disclosure of any information of a SIM card user, “unless upon subpoena by a competent authority pursuant to an investigation based on a sworn complaint, that a specific mobile number was or is being used in the commission of a crime or that it was utilized as a means to commit a malicious, fraudulent or unlawful activity,” the Philippine News Agency reported.

According to privacy advocate Paul Bischoff, the creation of “a database of citizens and their mobile numbers restricts private communications, increases the potential of them being tracked and monitored, enables governments to build in-depth profiles of their citizens, and risks private data falling into the wrong hands.”

“A SIM card is more than a phone number. It allows authorities to easily track people’s locations and movements. All of their online activity—websites visited, search queries, purchases, and more—can be traced back to their device. Authorities could selectively throttle, censor or block internet connections of specific people or groups of people, giving way for harassment and persecution,” read a part of his report published on comparitech.com on Feb. 7, 2022.

Bischoff further said: “Without laws to protect registration data, personal details could be shared with third parties. These could include advertisers, other governments, or tax collection agencies, for example. This puts data at a higher risk of theft and abuse.”

The Philippines has the Data Privacy Act of 2012, but it seems the law has no teeth as fraudulent messages have continued to be sent via email, short messaging service and social media. These messages even carry the recipients’ names.

Here is another question which is packed with doubt, or fear: If the proposed SIM Card Registration Act becomes a law, how can the national government ensure that it would not turn itself into a surveillance machinery? Just asking a question that is worth asking, considering the unabated red-tagging of human rights workers and political activists, lawyers and judges, journalists and religious leaders.


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