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Government wants all SIM cards registered, to help track down criminals

Several countries have similar legislation, but privacy concerns have been raised

The government is proposing to have all SIM cards registered under the owners’ names as part of efforts to combat serious crime, The Sunday Times of Malta has learnt.

Government sources said legal amendments are being drafted that would require all new and existing SIM cards used in mobile phones, tablets or other publicly available devices to be registered with the owner’s details.

The move, which could raise privacy concerns, comes after police this week used SIM card data to track down a criminal gang believed to be behind a failed car bomb murder attempt in Fgura in January.

Police and the Malta Security Services used telecommunications data to link the failed car bomb – which had a SIM card as a detonator – to three men who were yesterday charged with attempted murder in connection to the attempted bombing.

This was the second gang that investigators managed to track down using mobile phone data in recent months. Back in December, police, with the help of Europol and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, tracked down the three men believed to have carried out the car bomb murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

“One of the main challenges we face when conducting this kind of investigation is the limited information available on SIM cards and who owns them,” a senior police source said.

Such schemes raise a number of Orwellian spectres

While the government proposals would require all new SIM cards to be registered with the authorities on purchase, existing users would be given a limited window to register their numbers with the authorities or face having their SIM disconnected.

All unregistered SIM cards will be deactivated, according to the proposals.

The government will also seek to limit the possibility of SIM cards changing hands. If a number is transferred to another person, the operators would need to be informed and a new registration handed over for the number to the authorities.

If a mobile phone or SIM is lost, the public could also be obliged to report this to the police and the number would be added to a separate list also controlled by the authorities.

Government sources working on the legislation said they were set to meet with operators to consult on the implementation of the new legal notice. A public consultation would also be held shortly.

Similar legislation has already been implemented in countries like Italy, Spain, France and Australia, however, it was rejected in the UK and the US. Among the main hurdles the legislation could face are privacy concerns.

Antonio Ghio, a University lecturer and lawyer specialised in data privacy, told The Sunday Times of Malta that the push for legislation demanding mandatory SIM card registration had been increasingly felt in various countries in recent years.

He drew parallels to what happened after the 2005 London and Madrid bombings, which led to the quick adoption of a Data Retention Directive under which mobile service providers had obligations to retain certain data just in case this was required by the police during investigation of serious crimes.

However, that directive was eventually declared null and void by the European Court of Justice as it did not strike the right balance between the privacy of the users and the public security interests of the State.

It remains to be seen, especially with the coming into force of new General Data Protection Regulations, whether such laws would be recognised as striking the right balance between privacy and public security.

“Generally speaking such mandatory registration schemes raise a number of Orwellian spectres including surveillance,” he said.

Dr Ghio said that a number of countries which had introduced such laws repealed them after a couple of years as they realised they had no effect on the reduction of crime.

“Using mandatory SIM registration as a sure method to reduce crime is unfortunately a myth, especially when criminals can circumvent such rules quite easily,” he warned.

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