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History repeats itself with calls to introduce mandatory SIM registration
13.1.20
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An official review of police action against 'county lines' drugs gangs has said that the possibility for people to purchase and use mobile phone SIM cards anonymously "enables criminality" and that the Home Office "should commission a review of the criminal abuse of mobile telecommunications services" by the end of 2020.

See: Both sides of the coin: An inspection of how the police and National Crime Agency consider vulnerable people who are both victims and offenders in ‘county lines’ drug offending (HMICFRS, pdf)

This issue has arisen multiple times in multiple countries across the world in the last two decades. The majority of states now require the registration of personal data when an individual purchases a SIM card.

In 2007, responding to a question in the House of Lords on whether the government intended to introduce mandatory SIM registration, Lord West of Spithead - at the time the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Security and Counter-terrorism at the Home Office - said (They Work For You, link):

"This issue was considered in detail by an expert group comprising representatives of law enforcement, the security and intelligence agencies and communications service providers following the terrorist attack on London in July 2005. The experts' findings remain valid. They concluded that the compulsory registration of ownership of mobile telephones would not deliver any significant new benefits to the investigatory process and would dilute the effectiveness of current self-registration schemes." (emphasis added)

In 2013, the mobile operators' trade group GSMA (link) published a review of SIM registration requirements across the world and found that there was no evidence to suggest the policy led directly to a reduction in crime. In a repeat of the exercise three years later, the organisation reached the same conclusion:

"...mobile users in at least 147 countries are required to prove their identity in order to register and/or activate their prepaid SIM cards... A number of governments adopt this policy primarily as part of efforts to help mitigate security concerns and to address criminal and anti-social behaviour. To date, there has been no empirical evidence that a mandatory SIM registration policy directly leads to a reduction in crime but governments perceive the process as a deterrent to the use of mobile platforms in supporting criminal activity." (emphasis added)

In some countries this lack of effectiveness has led to a change in policy. As GSMA reported in 2013:

"In Mexico, mandatory SIM registration was introduced in 2009 and repealed three years later after a policy assessment showed that it had not helped with the prevention, investigation and/or prosecution of associated crimes."

Any policy requiring the mandatory registration of personal data for the purchase of a SIM card can easily be subverted by those engaged in criminal activity - for example, by getting somebody else to purchase a card on their behalf. Meanwhile, such a policy eliminates the rest of the population's right to anonymous communication.

The existing evidence regarding the effects of mandatory SIM registration on the suppression of crime is clear - it has no direct effect. The Home Office, if it undertakes the review suggested by HMIC, will have to look very hard to find information supporting a contrary view.

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