Mandatory SIM card registration policies across the world

Anton P. | March 4, 2021

Over the last decade, many governments have introduced policies governing prepaid SIM card registration. In short, citizens must share their personal details in exchange for prepaid mobile services. The requirements might vary, with some laws calling for valid IDs or even biometric data. However, strict SIM card registration procedures sabotage people’s benign efforts to start anonymous communications. After all, such cards have been indispensable to journalists, travelers, human rights activists, and press informants. The anonymity granted by prepaid SIM cards is a double-edged dilemma, however. While it supports the right to private communications, it also shelters lawbreakers.

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What are prepaid SIM cards?

Prepaid SIM cards surfaced in the 1990s as an alternative to contract-based mobile phone services. People were able to use them without entering into long-term agreements with providers. Additionally, it served as a workaround for users with low credit scores that services might reject as clients. In essence, prepaid SIM cards offer commitment-free services and help avoid excessive fees. The hype especially increased when prepaid SIM cards became available in convenience stores. Thus, prepaid they attracted millions of customers either looking for contract-free alternatives or more private communication options.

Once people use all data allowance included in a prepaid SIM card, the service is terminated until recharged. This automatic halt is different from postpaid plans. When you reach your limit for the month, providers might charge more for exceeding preset limits.

Prepaid SIM cards are typically more private as users do not link their identities to them. People might use them to keep a low profile and enjoy anonymity unavailable through postpaid plans. In the latter, users’ full names and other personal details are associated with their phone numbers and communications. However, with the mandatory prepaid SIM card registration booming worldwide, their initial anonymity seems to fade away gradually.

How does prepaid SIM registration work?

Prepaid SIM card registration is a policy obligating users to supply a substantial amount of personal information before purchasing or activating their cards. Such laws govern SIM cards in approximately 155 countries. According to a report by GSMA, users might need to provide varying details about themselves like full names, home addresses, national identification numbers, or photographs. Some regions require biometric data as means of authentication. The interest in the use of fingerprints or face scans seems to increase proactively. However, there are differing approaches for handling such data:

  • Capture and store. This approach means that mobile network operators must obtain and retain information about the owners of SIM cards. This model seems to be prevalent, found in countries like Russia, France, Spain, Brazil, India, and many more. In such a scenario, operators will presumably supply data to regulators upon demand.
  • Capture and share. Mobile network operators must acquire SIM card users’ personal data and share it with government institutions. In this case, the data-sharing is continuous, without direct regulators’ requests. Only a handful of countries implement this approach: Thailand, Nigeria, Benin, Algeria, Italy, and Burundi.
  • Capture and validate. Cellular companies authenticate SIM card users against central government databases or against their unique credentials. This model is present in China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Peru, Ecuador, and Poland.

Why is prepaid SIM card registration necessary?

SIM card registration means that governments or mobile network operators can quickly pinpoint the owners of SIM cards. As a result, authorities can associate phone calls or messages to specific individuals. In many cases, supporters of such policies define them as means to fight crime and terrorism. Recently, Hong Kong illustrated this scenario after going public with its plans to introduce a SIM card registration system.

The authorities described the real-name registration as an attempt to stop criminals from hiding their identities. However, experts greeted the proposed requirement for full names and identity documents with a grain of salt. They noted that the new policy would only increase state surveillance and halt citizens’ collective actions against the government. Thus, the fear is that governments might not introduce prepaid SIM card registration to defend public interests. Instead, it can be a technique directed against people’s rights to question and protest against governments’ decisions.

Is SIM card registration effective in reducing crime?

In theory, SIM card registration systems should minimize fraudulent activities or simplify the process of identifying culprits. However, limited evidence has proved such claims or linked crime-reduction to these mandatory systems. Experts note that SIM card registration policies have increased the demand for such items in the black market. In 2016, a man in Singapore sold over 66,000 prepaid SIM cards with fake registration data. Thus, some regions implementing mandatory registrations have experienced more identity-related crimes as more people attempt to evade the policies.

For instance, Mexico had introduced a SIM card registration policy but decided against it just three years later. The government revoked its law after noticing its little to no impact on criminal investigations. Similar scenarios have occurred in regions like the Netherlands, Ireland, Canada, and the Czech Republic. In these countries, governments continue to reject proposals for mandatory registration policies.

Final notes on SIM card registration worldwide

As mentioned before, 155 countries currently implement mandatory SIM card registration. However, some regions do not enforce such policies: the US, Canada, Chile, Iceland, Ireland, the UK, Sweden, Finland, Portugal, Romania, Estonia, Lithuania, and Denmark.

While the exact approaches taken differ, the main principle remains the same. Governments want to combat the threats that arise due to the anonymity prepaid SIM cards supply. However, human rights activists highlight the potential for abuse of such registration systems to gain more insights into citizens’ lives. Linking prepaid SIM cards to users’ identities hinders the opportunities for free expression or political opposition.

In some countries, SIM card registration requires people to provide their IDs or passports. However, countries like Thailand, Zambia, Venezuela, Peru, China, and Nigeria turn to biometrics. Specialists note that such data-sharing requires extensive data protection frameworks. Even though mandatory registration systems can be beneficial, governments should prioritize transparency and customers. If countries have not introduced legal frameworks around privacy and data protection, customers’ data management is unclear. In some cases, it could aid the governments’ goals of building extensive profiles on people. Additionally, it could censor activists, protestors, journalists, and other entities that benefit from prepaid SIM cards.

Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.

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