21 Oct 2005

Singapore tightens rules on pre-paid cards

SINGAPORE (AFP) - The Singapore government has announced restrictions on pre-paid mobile phone cards to prevent them from being used by terrorists to set off bombs and carry out illicit activities.

From November 1, all three mobile phone companies in the city-state will be required to electronically record genuine personal details of all customers who buy pre-paid Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards.

SIM cards are tiny removable circuit boards fitted into cellular phones containing data including a directory of phone numbers used by the owner.

Registration requirements for pre-paid SIM cards have been less stringent than those for post-paid cards, whose monthly bills are sent to home or office addresses and are thus quickly traceable to their true owners.

The new requirements are "part of an ongoing and holistic security review by the government to boost Singapores security," the Ministry of Home Affairs, which looks after internal security, said in a statement.

Singapore, a staunch US ally, fears it is on the list of targets of attack by regional and international terrorist groups. It has stepped up security at key entry points, the subway system, sensitive installations and public places frequented by foreigners.

"Criminals exploit the anonymity of pre-paid SIM cards to avoid detection. Terrorist groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have done so too. In the region, we have seen Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) elements using pre-paid SIM cards extensively to avoid detection," Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng said in a statement.

He noted that in southern Thailand's restive Songkhla province, three bombs that went off simultaneously in April "were detonated using mobile phones, possibly utilising pre-paid SIM cards.

"Singapore must address this problem urgently as there are over 1.4 million local pre-paid SIM cards, comprising 35 percent of the mobile market, in circulation today," Wong said.

Singapore will not be the first country strengthening controls to deal with the anonymity of pre-paid SIM cards, the statement said. Switzerland and Australia are also enforcing registration requirements, it added.

The changes replace the existing practice by mobile service providers of manually recording customer details, which are sometimes fictitious.

"For example, some retailers had recorded names like Santa Claus, while other retailers simply record their own names as having purchased the pre-paid SIM card," the statement said.

Purchasers of pre-paid SIM cards will be required to show official identity cards in the case of local residents and passports in the case of visitors.

In addition, customers must be at least 15 years old before being eligible to purchase a pre-paid SIM card and each customer is limited to a maximum of 10 pre-paid SIM cards. No explanation was given for the age requirement.

Owners of existing pre-paid cards are required to re-register them over a six-month period ending May 1, 2006, after which SIM cards that are not re-registered will be deactivated.

I don't know how much this move can achieve in terms of security, but I do know that 1) It infringes on privacy, and 2) Some clauses are rather inane, like the age limit, considering the average age for getting a handphone in Singapore, is about 12-13 already. What I also find amusing is that just a few weeks ago, the government was concerned about identity theft through excessive usage of our ICs and IC numbers, and now they implement a move which requires precisely that.

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