The Austrian government’s draft security package is facing criticism from mobile operators, according to a report. Under the package, starting on 1 January 2018 all prepaid users will have to be registered. The Association of Alternative Telecommunications Operators (VAT)—whose members include Colt, Hutchison Drei Austria, T-Mobile Austria, Tele2 and UPC Austria—argues that the new rule would negatively affect the sale of smartphones in supermarkets, the availability of top-up channels and operators’ revenues. The association also claims that the security regulation would make it impossible to sell SIMs through ATMs.
In Austria, it is currently allowable to purchase a SIM card in a supermarket and make calls anonymously, without registering any personal details with the operator. At present, of the 5.1 million SIM cards in circulation in the country, 3.5 million are non-registered. The obligation to register would not apply to these, on the grounds that it would be unfeasible. Only new cards would have to be registered.
In an increasingly security-conscious world, with terrorist attacks grabbing headlines and governments feeling pressure to respond, it is hardly surprising that a move to get rid of anonymous SIMs would be proposed.
Rather than arguing that privacy concerns trump security concerns, critics of the Austrian government plan say that registering SIMs does not actually prevent crimes, because the registration process is not sufficiently secure. They point out that SIMs can be registered using false documents, or else legitimately registered and then passed to someone else whose identity is not recorded. These arguments are not without merit. They further point out that in at least some of the countries that have implemented a registration obligation, no decrease in the number of crimes has been observed, and some countries, such as the U.K., Romania or the Czech Republic, have discontinued the requirement to register prepaid SIM cards.
Another reason to oppose SIM registration is privacy. Concerns over privacy and confidentiality issues continue to grow among consumers, across a broad swath of demographics. Of course most buyers of anonymous SIM cards are not doing so for nefarious purposes, and those can be counted upon to be resentful of a regulation that they give their identities. Conversely, they will likely be appreciative of an MNO’s effort to protect their privacy or to advocate for it, even if unsuccessfully. And even those who do not themselves want unregistered SIMs may well feel less favorably disposed toward an operator if that operator gives the appearance of giving in to this government regulation without a fight. So publicly opposing the new rule could positively affect operators, even if the effort ultimately fails, in ways that go beyond the concerns about mobile service revenue, smartphone sales and SIM points of sale.
On the other hand, the public is also increasingly concerned about security and crime prevention, especially when it comes to terrorism. So it is conceivable that operators could get an image boost from taking the government’s side in this matter and being proactive about registering SIMs—though not, we feel, very likely.