The Philippines is once again considering legislation that would require people to link their national identity card or passport to register a SIM card. After similar laws were shockingly crushed earlier this year, new bills are enjoying renewed support from a number of influential groups in the country.
Registering a SIM card, to which your national identity card or passport is linked, has become the norm in more than 150 countries in the world, despite questions about its effectiveness and other collateral issues such as security risks, state surveillance and social exclusion.
Its most ardent supporters come from law enforcement and national security agencies who like to toss the idea that requiring proof of identity to register a SIM card and therefore use a mobile device will deter and hinder the efforts of a wide range of boogeymen: terrorists, criminals and a mob other bad actors.
Things happened the same way in the Philippines. For years, the uniformed services and their bosses in Congress have been pushing for SIM registration legislation. After the bombings Where a spike in phone fraudthey influence public conversations to build support for a central SIM card registry – as if it were a panacea for many societal ills.
Bills are introduced, but they always lose their relevance as other priority policies end up monopolizing the spotlight. Opposition to the measure has always been there – usually citing privacy and security concerns – but its impact has been minimal. He can’t take credit for the back-to-back failures SIM registration efforts have suffered over the past decade.
Things have changed in the past six years. In President Rodrigo Duterte, supporters have found their perfect ally: a leader who has shamelessly flattered the country’s armed forces and stood by them even amid scathing criticism and countless allegations of human rights violations. human rights.
With him in power, few were surprised to see the SIM registration proposal pass quickly through Congress. Everyone, including civil society, felt that his approval was a foregone conclusion.
To everyone’s shock, however, Duterte himself crushed the incoming registration requirement. Just before the bill became law, the president vetoed the proposal, citing (amongst all) human rights considerations. He argued that the law’s requirement to register social media users would undermine people’s constitutionally protected rights.
Few people bought into this narrative. For some, at least, the most likely reason was that the president himself and the army of trolls he is believed to be maintaining benefit immensely from online anonymity. Either way, it was a weird but heartwarming conclusion to a bizarre story for rights advocates. Unfortunately, their comfort was ultimately short-lived.
Today, just months after the proposal disappeared, and with current President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in power, at least 18 bills have already been introduced in the Legislature calling for its resurrection. Two of them even feature the same social media component that sounded the death knell of their immediate predecessor.
By all accounts, the renewed push is even stronger than the previous one, drawing support from almost all sides. In addition to the usual suspects, the banking sector is also involved, as are certain consumer groups, the data protection authority and the telecommunications sector. These last two are remarkable. Given its mandate, a privacy regulator is expected to steer clear of measures that by design infringe privacy. It’s not supposed to favor them, much less make a active approval. With telecom operators, their express support is a recent development. For years, they have openly resisted this type of policy, carefully citing its impact on human rights and its significant financial implications while questioning its effectiveness. They completely reversed course without even giving the slightest explanation.
For more wary minds, however, the most likely reason may be the promulgation of the law on number portability in 2021. This law already obliges telecommunications operators to establish a database in order to facilitate the transfer of mobile number accounts from one provider to another. This effectively removes their main objection to SIM registration: the substantial cost of database management.
But telecom operators are not alone. Another group likely to be negatively affected by a SIM card policy is journalists and their data collection practices. And yet, some of their peers also lent their voices to the chorus of supporters of the proposal. In a recent editorial, one of the country’s leading news dailies even called on lawmakers to speed up the passage of the law. Either they’re oblivious to the fact that it would make their job exponentially harder, or they just don’t care enough. Journalists, after all, rely heavily on anonymous information and confidential informants given the nature of their work.
Despite this surprising turn of events, the massive support for SIM card registration is not hard to explain. It offers simple logic with an attractive hook: by requiring SIM card registration, you take away anonymity and unmask the people behind all those harmful (or at least annoying) calls and messages. In simpler terms, you facilitate accountability.
This message is quite effective, especially now that people are furious at the deluge of unsolicited communications they receive daily – many of which are vishing and smishing attempts. Of course, they want to get their hands on the perpetrators and hold them accountable!
There is only one problem. The proposal has a fundamental flaw: it is based on the false notion that anonymous calls or messages are only possible with the use of SIM cards. It is untenable. On the contrary, with the technologies available today, the list of means by which spammers and criminal elements can communicate anonymously continues to grow. SIM card registration is specifically designed to eliminate just one, while taking a lot of excess baggage with it.
It’s the sad truth. Malicious actors can quickly render SIM registries ineffective simply by changing gears and choosing a different delivery mechanism (eg, using foreign numbers, messaging platforms, mobile apps, etc.). Once they’ve done that, all that’s left is another massive state-sanctioned database that contains millions of personal identifying information. These databases are not only expensive to maintain, but become honeypots for hackers and others to exploit.
Yet no one pays attention to all this. In fact, SIM card registration may already find a new home in the Philippines very soon. With both houses of Congress keen to make sure this happens and a new president not exactly known for his affinity for human rights, there is little reason to doubt this will become law. And this time, there will be no surprise veto to save the day.
None of this bodes well for a country that has barely survived half a dozen years marked by extrajudicial executions, intense repression of government critics and a calculated and sustained attack on human rights. . One would envision a future where civic spaces are smaller and much more remote, miserable symptoms of a once promising democracy in decline.
As of this writing, the SIM card registration law is about to be enacted. – Rappler.com
Jamael Jacob is a lawyer and privacy practitioner wearing many hats, including: Data Protection Officer of Ateneo de Manila University, Policy and Legal Advisor to the Foundation for Media Alternatives, and Executive Director of the LIGHTS Institute, a research and consulting firm. He is also the former (and first-ever) head of the policy unit of the National Privacy Commission.
This item was commissioned by OPTF – a non-profit secure technology that builds the Session Private Messaging Application. This is part of a project to raise awareness of digital privacy rights. It was originally published here.