A plan to toughen Hong Kong regulations on prepaid SIM cards by requiring users to provide their real names and personal data took a major step forward on Tuesday, but with a twist – a planned cap on the number of cards one person or business can hold has been raised significantly.
Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah on Tuesday said the city’s Executive Council had approved the mandatory registration of personal data such as real names, birth dates, ID number and a copy of the applicant’s identity document.
But a planned cap that would have limited the number of prepaid SIM cards to just three for both individuals and businesses was dropped after a seven-week consultation period in favour of allowing up to 10 per person and 25 per company from each service provider.
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No limit exists under existing regulations.
Telecoms service providers are also being given longer to make the new rules a reality, with a 120-day window being expanded to 180 days.
Prepaid SIM card users, meanwhile, will have to complete the registration process between March 1, 2022, and February 23, 2023, meaning the time frame for compliance has been extended from 240 to 360 days.
The new rules will be gazetted on June 4, tabled at the Legislative Council on June 9 and take effect on September 1.
“We have [split] individual users and corporate users, such as the food and beverage sector and logistics, which may require a larger number of phones using prepaid SIM cards. The relaxation from the original proposal is a very big jump,” Yau said.
“There are four major telecoms operators with large retail outlets, and quite a few virtual mobile operators, [so the new cap] should be sufficient for the corporate users.”
During February and March’s consultation period, the government said the planned reforms were needed to regulate anonymous pay-as-you-go cards that allowed criminals to evade detection when committing offences such as phone scams.
The cards, they said, were also a common tool in other serious crimes that threatened public safety.
At the time, there were an estimated 20.9 million prepaid SIM cards in circulation, or nearly three for each of the city’s 7.5 million residents. Of those, 56 per cent – or some 11.7 million SIM cards – were so-called space cards that were not required to be registered.
About 155 countries including China, Australia and France require some form of mandatory SIM card registration, requiring new users to provide information ranging from addresses to biometric data such as facial scans and fingerprints.
Under the new scheme, law enforcement agencies with a court warrant can request telecoms operators provide SIM cards’ registration details, such as the user’s name and ID card number. Under certain urgent or emergency situations, they can request the information without a warrant.
“We are not creating any new arrangement,” Yau maintained. “All these provisions are basically in line with the enforcement arrangements as prescribed in other similar ordinances, such as the Crimes Ordinance and Immigration Ordinance.”
Francis Fong Po-kiu, honorary president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation, said the sale of prepaid SIM cards would definitely drop once the new scheme took effect, as was the case in Macau when it implemented similar measures at the end of 2019.
Fong pointed out that major telecoms operators would be able to bear the additional cost of developing online registration and verification systems for new users. “But for small operators, they need to deal with the system development and the compliance costs, which may threaten their survival,” he said.
Lawmaker Chan Kin-por, vice-chairman of the Legislative Council’s information technology panel, said the scheme struck a balance between users’ interests and the need to combat crime, especially phone scams.
“There is a need for this registration system which could plug the loophole of the existing law and help us trace the fraudsters behind the scams,” he said.
Major industry players HKT and SmarTone, meanwhile, said they welcomed the revised scheme, with the former adding it would “work towards the implementation of the programme accordingly”.