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Proposal to require passports to buy mobile phones

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:03 pm on 19 October, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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According to both Scotland on Sunday and the Times, the British government is considering requiring people to present their passports, or other official ID, when buying mobile phones. From the Times’ article:

A compulsory national register for the owners of all 72m mobile phones in Britain would be part of a much bigger database to combat terrorism and crime. Whitehall officials have raised the idea of a register containing the names and addresses of everyone who buys a phone in recent talks with Vodafone and other telephone companies, insiders say.

The move is targeted at monitoring the owners of Britain’s estimated 40m prepaid mobile phones. They can be purchased with cash by customers who do not wish to give their names, addresses or credit card details.

The pay-as-you-go phones are popular with criminals and terrorists because their anonymity shields their activities from the authorities. But they are also used by thousands of law-abiding citizens who wish to communicate in private.

The move aims to close a loophole in plans being drawn up by GCHQ, the government’s eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham, to create a huge database to monitor and store the internet browsing habits, e-mail and telephone records of everyone in Britain.

The “Big Brother” database would have limited value to police and MI5 if it did not store details of the ownership of more than half the mobile phones in the country.

So this seems to be a knock-on effect of the plans to introduce the snooper’s database of the origin, the location, the destination and the length of phone calls, emails and website visits in the UK.

However as an anti-crime/anti-terrorism measure it seems rather ineffective to me. Surely anyone wishing to circumvent this requirement merely has to do one of the following:

  • Steal a mobile phone.
  • Obtain a mobile phone second hand in a private transaction.
  • Forge ID documents with which to buy phones.
  • Obtain a phone from abroad.
  • Learn how to alter a phone’s identity.

Making any or all of these illegal is hardly going to stop people already intent breaking the law from doing these things. Meanwhile the law abiding public get subjected to ever greater levels of surveillance. Perhaps that’s the point.

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