Mobile phone registration

The Irish Government have again trundled out a proposal to force mandatory registration of pre-paid mobile phones. It is stated that this will be a wonderful weapon in the war on drugs, organised crime and pixies.

There are two small problems with the proposal as it currently stands.

  1. It is unlikely to work as the politicians claim it will
  2. It is unlikely to work as the politicians hope it will

Now, technically, this is just one problem but it is such a doozy I thought it would be worth mentioning at least twice.

The reason it is unlikely to work as the politicians claim it will is that in order to ensure that the Register of Mobiles does not become filled with Michael M. Ouses or I.P Freelys the process will require some form of validation of name and address. In order to mitigate the risk of forged or fraudlent documentation being used (which would result in Mr Freely freely getting his fone phraudulently phone fraudulently) this documentation will need to be of some ‘official’ form.

For Bill Pay phones the usual documentation required is a passport or drivers licence (a work ID on its own is not usually sufficient in my experience) and a utility bill – these prove you are who you say you are and you live where you say you live. In order for the Register of Mobiles to meet the stringent evidentiary requirements that the stated purpose require (to deter criminals using mobiles and to assist in tracking and apprehending them via their mobile records) then a very high level of validity and verifiability will be required of the information used for identification purposes when the phone is being purchased.

The majority of Ready-to-go customers would seem to be children and teenagers (I’ve lost track of the number of phones my teenage sister-in-law has had over the past few years). They may not have a passport, are unlikely to have a driver’s licence (until they are in their late teens) and are extremely unlikely to be in possession of a valid utility bill in their name.

So how will they register their phones? Are the Government proposing that the phones would be registered to the parents of these children and teenagers? What then if the child is involved in some criminal activity? Does the parent become a suspect because of the mobile phone records?

“I didn’t beat up little Johnnie… I’d left my phone at home. My ma hates Johnnie – she must’ve done it!”.

One solution proposed to this (which according to the Irish Daily Mail came from Civil Servants in a review of this idea update– thanks to Antoin at who has a blog post which quotes the Dept of Communications on this topic) would be to implement the Register of Mobiles only after a National Identity Card was introduced in Ireland. In theory, this would give a standardised, State-backed identity (and possibly a unique identifier for the person). However there are no current proposals to implement such a card and previous proposals have met with opposition from various quarters.

A further issue is that name and address data ages over time. People move house, get married, get divorced or die. What mechanism will the Government require to ensure that the information registered on the Register of Mobiles is maintained accurately and in a form that meets or exceeds the evidentiary requirements of the legal system? This is not an issue for bill Pay phones as if the bill ceases to be paid the phone is cut off… and if the bill is still being paid but the address is no longer valid the Authorities have other investigative avenues open to them (such the payment records). For ‘ready-to-throw’ mobiles this is and will be a critical problem. Not only can the person move address, but the phone may ‘move person’ by being swapped, loaned or shared between family members (this may happen with bill pay phones but it is reasonable to assume that in the case of a bill pay phone the ‘sharing’ or ‘lending’ of the phone would be temporary).

Currently we have a very important national register of people which is collated and maintained for a very serious and important function in the operation of the State. It’s called the Electoral Register and, not to put too fine a point on it, it has some ‘issues’ with the quality of the information there-in and the levels of duplication and inaccuracy in the data. What confidence should we have that the Government will have learned the lessons of the Electoral Register in the design and implementation of any new Register of Mobiles?

I am not saying we should not require registration of pre-pay mobile phones (all operators currently encourage registration through ‘free credit’ bribes). However if we are to require citizens to give up elements of personal privacy and provide information about their mobile phone usage to State Agencies then it is essential that the system work as it is intended it will and that the information captured meets or exceeds the expectations of the politicians, the police and, most importantly, the citizen. Crucially this must happen with out the information captured being excessive or irrelevant to the stated purposes for registration.

If we require people to provide information into a system and set of processes that will eventually degrade into an unmanaged cacophony of inaccurate, incomplete, inconsistent and otherwise just plain awful data rather than a symphony of polished, reliable and policed information then we will have achieved nothing other than a layer of paperwork and a burden on mobile phone operators and their customers. Those with criminal intent will pervert the system – foreign SIMS, imported phones, stolen phones etc.

By definition they don’t play by the rules.

8 thoughts on “Mobile phone registration”

  1. Simon,

    I suspect something stronger than catnip involved in this one… without a clear strategy for how the information will be collected and managed to ensure accuracy this will be une grosse élephant blanc qui sont plein de mérde.

    Hopefully it will go the way of the last call to do this a few years ago… lots of noise and then it disappeared. However the increased publicity around the use of phones in high profile trials might counteract common sense.

    I wonder what the bods and boffins over in Digital Rights Ireland think about this one?

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