Such cheap and cheerful cards can be used for massive crime and chaos, yet registration and control standards are lacking regionally.

To enable tracking of any illegal activities that could be perpetrated with prepaid subscriber identity modules (SIM), many countries have made registration mandatory.

In Manila, Senator Sherwin Gatchalian had proposed this unsuccessfully in 2016 but after he himself fell prey to fraudsters who got away with around US$21,000 worth of goods, he has filed the bill again. If the bill is enacted into law, any concerns about the personal information of users are covered by the country’s Data Privacy Act.

However, as of yet, there is no legislation requiring mandatory registration of prepaid sim cards in the Philippines, just like there is none in Japan and New Zealand.

Elsewhere in the region

In China, since Dec 2019, facial biometric scanning has been made mandatory for identification purposes when purchasing new sim cards. Previously, present a valid identification card was enough. The rationale behind the rule is that internet personas must be tied to real identities as online platforms typically require users to register their phone numbers when signing up for services requiring real-name verification.

In Singapore, rules in were tightened since 2014 to limit each person to hold up to three pre-paid SIM cards instead of the previous 10. Anyone convicted of “involvement in fraudulently registering prepaid SIM cards using the particulars of unsuspecting customers or foreigners who have not entered Singapore” can be jailed for up to three years or fined up to S$10,000, or both.

In Malaysia, the government is no less strict when it comes to the proper registration of sim cards. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) recently suspended dealers and telecommunication companies for registering prepaid SIM cards without verifying the users’ information.

In Thailand, as far back as 2018, buyers of SIM cards have been required to have their faces or fingerprints scanned and stored in a government database. According to the Thai government, the system is intended partly as an anti-terrorism measure: Thailand had experienced several bombings in which cellphones were used to detonate explosives, using the electric current that flows through a phone when it receives a call.

Where privacy meets national security

There are concerns from the citizenry that the system will be abused by authorities. Combining personal identifiers with location and other data that can be gleaned from a phone could give authorities a detailed picture of a given person’s day-to-day activities.

The concerns in Thailand—where the authorities could have blanket authority to do a  surveillance on an individual anytime, anyplace—somewhat mirror those in the Philippines, where an Anti-Terrorism law was enacted last year.

It remains to be seen whether Senator Gatchalian’s bill will become a law. That is a long way to go: it will have to pass three readings in Congress before the counterpart bill in the Senate is approved, and then a bicameral committee finalizing the bill; then the President’s signature. Filipinos will cross the bridge when they get there.