The government has announced plans to require people to register their identity when buying pay-as-you-go mobile phone SIM cards, saying the move is needed to help tackle a range of serious crimes, from phone scams to bombings.
Under the proposal, people buying pre-paid SIM cards would be required to register their name, Hong Kong ID card or passport number, and their date of birth.
People could register up to three cards with each phone company, and after a year or so, older cards would be deactivated if they too were not registered.
"The anonymous nature of such services undermines people's confidence in the integrity of telecommunications services, jeopardises genuine and legitimate use of such services and creates obstacles for law enforcement," the government said in a paper for a 30-day public consultation exercise on the proposal.
Francis Fong, honorary president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation, said while the proposal does not come as a surprise, the consultation period is far too short for such an important issue that affects many people.
"The impact of this system actually will affect a lot of... not just mobile operators, but it will also affect resellers in Sham Shui Po or in the shopping mall, also it will affect a lot of citizens who actually have a lot of SIM cards, they want to have a lot of SIM cards for collection, or if they have bad reception in some areas, or they actually run out of data and want many SIM cards for backup.
"It will affect the industry when they're running vehicle fleets using mobile SIM cards and GPS to locate the vehicle... I think it impacts a lot of things," he told RTHK's Annemarie Evans.
A "real-name registration" system for SIM cards was implemented on the mainland in 2010 and Macau in 2019, and at a press conference, Commerce Secretary Edward Yau said 155 countries and regions have such a registration programme.
Yau said the SAR government has no plans to follow the mainland in requiring people to also scan their faces when buying phone cards.
During the 2019 protests, it was common for protesters to use pay-as-you-go SIM cards to stay anonymous while communicating with each other.
Undersecretary for Security Sonny Au said mobile phones with such SIM cards had been used to set off bombs in Hong Kong. He said there had been four bombings in the past two years, including in Mong Kok and Tin Shui Wai.
Au said police would have to get a court warrant if they wanted to obtain the registered information from telecom companies, except in "urgent and emergency situations involving a serious offence".
He said the need to arrest a suspect could be considered "urgent", and a "serious offence" would be one that carries a maximum punishment of three years or more in prison. In such cases, police superintendents or higher-ranking officers could authorise moves to bypass the courts.
Fong stressed the need to strike a balance between security and people's privacy.
"For example, when the law enforcement department wants to get the mobile phone information from the telecom operator, now they either have to apply for a court order or they can go around and say there's some urgency so they would not need to apply for the court order and directly order the telecom operator to surrender those information. I think this is a very important point that we need to discuss," he said.
Last updated: 2021-01-29 HKT 18:23