Hong Kong’s government on Friday announced plans to force people to register their identity when buying mobile phone SIM cards, describing the move as an effort to curb crime. However, a data scientist said it appeared aimed more at detecting national security offences and workarounds will be possible.

Buyers of pre-paid SIM cards will have to give details including their full name, date of birth, and a copy of their identity card under the proposal.

File photo: Robin Worrall, via unsplash.

Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau said the policy was needed as there were over 12 million pre-paid SIM cards in use in Hong Kong. A period of public consultation would last for a month, starting on Saturday.

Commercial users would be required to register with their business registrations, and each person could only register for a maximum of three pre-paid SIM cards.

Under-Secretary for Security Sonny Au cited threats such as online shopping scams, the impersonation of government officials, human trafficking, and attacks with home-made bombs.

The proposed rules would allow telecommunications companies to store personal data for 12 months, and law enforcement agencies could access it without court approval under “emergency circumstances.”

Wong Ho-wa, a data scientist and Election Committee representative for the IT industry, told HKFP that criminals could still evade the need for registration if they wanted to.

“This does not mean an effective clampdown on crime,” said Wong. “A lot of the criminals might not even be in Hong Kong, they can easily use virtual numbers that appear to be in the city.”

He said demonstrators use pre-paid SIM cards during the anti-extradition bill protests and people concerned about their privacy also did so. “The requirement would essentially quash their freedom to do so.”

Wong questioned whether the government could persuade the public in the current political climate, and said it was unfair to compare the situation in Hong Kong to that of Japan and South Korea.

“It’s a matter of trust. Many European countries, and also Japan, have a similar law but their police have different powers and they have a different judiciary.”

In early January, Hong Kong police ordered the city’s major telecoms providers to block access to an anti-government website, in the first instance of internet censorship since the onset of a sweeping national security law last June.

Wong questioned the true intention of the proposed SIM card legislation and whether the government needed all these precautions.

National security law
Photo: GovHK.

“Do ’emergency situations’ essentially mean national security? Wouldn’t that give more power to the police, and make Hong Kong level to Macau and mainland China?”

“Do they need all these [powers] to feel safe? What are they so afraid of?”

Hong Kong-based IT security expert Leo Weese told HKFP the ability for people to be easily reachable and connect to the internet “is important for a prosperous digital economy.”

“Placing arbitrary restrictions on who can and cannot communicate with the world contravenes the desire to develop and expand Hong Kong’s economy.”

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced in 2017 that everyone in China would have to use a SIM card that was linked to their identity. Phones have required real name registration in the mainland since 2010.

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.