01 Feb 2021
All Hong Kong mobile phone users will have to provide their real name and personal details under proposals for compulsory SIM-card registration in the city, with officials blaming criminals for exploiting the current system.
Mandatory registration could be extended to users of prepaid SIM cards, requiring them to provide their full name, a copy of their identity document and date of birth, the government suggested on Friday as it launched a one-month public consultation on the proposals.
Under the planned reforms, law enforcement agencies such as police, immigration, and anti-corruption authorities would have the power to obtain registration records without a court warrant in urgent or emergency situations, but an approval from an officer with the rank of superintendent or above would be needed.
The Commerce and Economic Development Bureau said in a consultation document that the measures aimed to better regulate SIM services, and anonymous pay-as-you-go cards allowed criminals to evade detection when committing offences such as phone scams. The cards were also a common tool in serious and violent crimes that threatened public safety, it added.
Currently, 11.7 million prepaid SIM cards are circulating in Hong Kong while 9.2 million service plans have been taken out, making a total of 20.9 million mobile subscriptions. That works out at almost three SIM cards per person on average for the 7.5 million population.
Only those on SIM service plans – or contracts – are currently required to register their real information, with users of prepaid cards not covered.
Under the proposal, telecoms firms would need to establish a registration system and database ready to go live within 120 days of the scheme’s launch. From that date onwards, new cards for sale would have to comply with registration rules before they could be activated for use.
Old sim cards already in use would be required to be registered retrospectively within 360 days of the regulation taking effect.
Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah said 90 per cent of con artists used prepaid cards for deceptions, while 70 per cent of offenders involved in serious crimes such as murder, robbery, burglary and drugs also relied on the cards.
“If we can eliminate these difficulties in detecting crime, actually the new measures do not affect law-abiding citizens but better protect their safety,” he said, adding that 155 countries had adopted similar regulations.
On the draft regulations’ warrant-free provisions, Yau said: “The data [officers can obtain] only includes the registration particulars. It doesn’t include the content of the conversations.”
Yau said telecoms companies would have to keep the records for a year after the cards were no longer in service, but the government would not have direct access to the database.
The consultation paper suggested limiting each user to registering a maximum of three prepaid SIM cards with each of Hong Kong’s 30 or so telecoms companies, to avoid creating a secondary market that would help criminals to remain anonymous.
Registrants aged under 16 should be endorsed by an “appropriate adult” such as a parent, relative or guardian, according to the document.
Asked if the 2019 anti-government protests and the national security law were driving the reforms, security undersecretary Sonny Au Chi-kwong only said the policy was designed to tackle the increasing prevalence of organised crime and deceptions.
He cited figures showing that reported phone scams jumped from 615 in 2018 to 1,108 in the first 11 months of 2020, with victims losing more than HK$563 million.
“The card has become a tool of the criminal,” Au said. “After committing crimes, they can keep getting a new one to avoid our detection. Without the culprits’ identity, investigations became more difficult.”
By Christy Leung and Natalie Wong, South China Morning Post, 29 January 2021
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