Not All Regulators Agree on ‘Big Brother’ SIM Cards

Visualization of what those behind plan might have envisioned. Original photo: Survivaladmin / Flickr

BANGKOK — Telecoms regulators disagree over a plan to mandate foreigners use SIM cards which can track their location, with one commissioner saying the plan has a long way to go and may end up dropping the tracking function.

Challenging assertions made last week about the plan, a member of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission’s board said the plan was unlikely to go forward as envisioned, most likely without the location-tracking of all foreigners promised.

While the commission’s top executive, Takorn Tantasith, assured that such SIM cards would not infringe on rights and privacy, commissioner Pravit Leestapornwongsa said the board sees flaws in the plan and has raised questions about its feasibility. He was also unsure to what extent Takorn pitched the idea on behalf of the state security apparatus.

“I don’t know what Takorn talked about with the national security department,” Pravit said. “But I don’t think it is technically possible.”

When the board met last week, Pravit said he asked whether existing SIM cards can already track their owners via cell-tower triangulation, and whether it could be turned off.

Don Sambandaraksa, a Telecom Asia correspondent, said there is existing technology by which a SIM card can actively and continuously report its tower-based location over the phone network, similar to how SMS messages are sent.

Pravit said he is not convinced that, without GPS, a SIM card would have the ability to identify a more accurate location.

Though the plan was approved in concept by the NBTC, Pravit stressed it was still in the early stages. Whether it would apply only to tourists or all expats living in the country was still an undecided detail, he said.

The tracking function was not the main idea, he said.

Pravit said he only supports a special SIM card for tourists that would see their unused numbers return back to the pool of available numbers more quickly, and any balances on their cards steered into government coffers.

“Currently tourists top up money to use the phone. When they leave the country, the phone operator gets the unused money,” Pravit said. “We aim to bring it back to the government instead.”

He disputed other assertions made by Takorn last week.

“Takorn said it would be the same as filling out the address form as obligated under immigration law. I explained in the meeting that it’s not,” he said. “That form is for the location I stay such as a hotel, but the government should not have the right to know where I go during the day.”

Jeffrey J. Blatt from the law firm Tilleke & Gibbins, who represented telecommunication companies for years and is based in Thailand, said the authorities already have plenty of broad laws and powers at their disposal to obtain records about individuals.

More so, he said, the plan would not enhance security.

“These new rules would seem to have limited value and have the potential to send the wrong message to both lawful resident foreigners and to visitors that the Thai government seeks to track your every move,” he said.

Even if the plan went ahead, both Pravit and Blatt agreed it would not be effective, as tourists or foreign residents or even criminals would find a way to get the normal SIM cards through Thai nationals.

“At the end of the day, there is no substitute for good old-fashioned police work to prevent, detect, investigate and stop crime,” Blatt said.


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