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Hong Kong SIM Registration Law Raises Privacy Concerns

FILE - Pro-democracy protesters hold up their mobile phone torches as they sing during a rally in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong on June 12, 2020.
FILE - Pro-democracy protesters hold up their mobile phone torches as they sing during a rally in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong on June 12, 2020.

A new Hong Kong telecommunications law requiring users to register their mobile SIM cards using their legal names could further stoke fear in a city already grappling with the national security law, experts say.

The regulation passed in June and took effect in September. It limits individuals to 10 prepaid SIM cards and corporate users to 25, and new users must register their names using their identity documents. In March, existing users will need to register under their real names under the law.

The Hong Kong government said the legislation aims to "facilitate the prevention and detection of crimes related to the use of pre-paid SIM … cards, thereby safeguarding the integrity of telecommunications services and the security of communications network."

Offenders are subject to up to three years of imprisonment or a maximum fine of roughly $130,000.

The new law is widely seen as part of a crackdown on anti-government protesters in Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement, who went out of their way to hide their identities by wearing face masks and using prepaid SIM cards in communications out of fear of potential repercussions.

Elizabeth Quat, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, said in a June Legislative Council meeting about the legislation that she was worried that "terrorists in the city might commit crime with phone SIM cards, so the real-name registration is necessary."

However, Johnny Patterson, the policy director of Hong Kong Watch, a U.K.-based organization that monitors threats to freedom in Hong Kong, told VOA in an email that the regulation seeks to "systematically iron out every last vestige of opposition."

"The new regulations must be put into the context of the wider crackdown on civil society and dissent in Hong Kong," Patterson said. "It will add to the atmosphere of fear and self-censorship which already pervades in Hong Kong."

"The real-name registration of SIM cards is an unnecessary step which compromises the right to privacy without bringing any meaningful windfall for the security of citizens," he wrote.

Ronny Tong, a pro-Beijing member of Hong Kong's Executive Council – which assists Chief Executive Carry Lam on policy matters – said purchasing prepaid SIM cards anonymously is neither a "freedom" nor a "right."

"This is similar to how some people believe it's a right to harm national security … the real-name registration only requires handing out personal information to telecommunications companies instead of any government or law enforcement agencies. How does that violate personal privacy rights?" Tong asked in a Chinese-language Facebook post in February during a consultation period on the law.

In September, the semi-autonomous city also passed a contentious privacy law that will allow government officers to access electronic devices without a warrant, as well as issue notices to remove or even block access to specific content online. The new law came into effect on October 8.

Privacy and data are also a concern for the new SIM card law, according to Lennon Yao-chung Chang, senior lecturer on cybercrime at the Monash University in Australia.

He said growing distrust between the government and citizens could be the reason for the SIM card legislation, and he expressed concern about where the data from the real-name registration will end up.

"We will never know what this data will be used for. Even with the government's promise, I will still be hesitant … and again, what if there are identity thefts and leaks of personal data?" Chang asked in an interview.

That concern has been shared by more than half of Hong Kong's citizens, according to a survey by the city's opposition Civic Party in March during the consultation period.

Their report says that more than 50% of the respondents were worried that the police could request SIM card users' personal data without a warrant, and about potential monitoring of their whereabouts and speech.

Chang also questioned the effectiveness of the regulation against phone-related crimes.

"Real-name [registration] might have some effects on combatting phone scams. However, for professional criminals, even with that, they will still be able to use mules to register for the SIM cards … I don't think the impact will be as great as the government predicts," Chang told VOA.

Police data show that Hong Kongers were duped in email scams nine times more often than in telephone-related crimes during the 12 months up to August of this year. Victims lost $31.2 million to corporate-level email scams in the period, compared to $4.8 million to con artists on the phone.