Authorities say new restrictions meant to curb criminality but activists and rights group say it is another form of silencing dissent.
The Hong Kong government has kicked off public consultation on the near-certain policy change, which would require residents of the city to register their mobile phone SIM cards using their real identity, raising more concerns over privacy and fears of wider state surveillance.
Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau unveiled on Friday the proposal, which includes requiring individuals to provide their real names, date of birth as well as ID number for verification.
The new measure comes on the heels of China’s decision to impose the new national security law on the semi-autonomous city last year.
There are an estimated 21 million SIM card users in Hong Kong. Currently, more than half of them are using pay-to-go cards that do not require personal information – thereby protecting their privacy.
But that has become a source of irritation for Hong Kong’s security forces, as massive pro-democracy protests erupted in the city between 2018 and 2019. Many of the protests were organised using smartphone communication and through social media.
The real question is not ‘what % of criminals use prepaid sims’, but ‘what % of prepaid sims are being used by criminals’. It is a right, not a crime, to express anonymously.
— Alex Lam 林偉聰 (@lwcalex) January 29, 2021
Under the new proposal, businesses are also required to provide company information to register, while individual users are allowed to have only three pay-to-go cards from one telecom provider.
Minors below the age of 16 are not allowed to register unless approval from an adult is presented.
Individuals who are caught providing false information could face lengthy prison time of up to 14 years, according to the proposal.
Meanwhile, phone companies are required to archive data of users and keep user information for at least 12 months after registration is cancelled.
The companies are also obliged to cut off service to those who failed to submit information after a certain period, and to submit to authorities information for the purpose of law enforcement.
SIM cards issued by foreign telecom services providers will not be reportedly affected by the proposal.
Sonny Au, Hong Kong Authority’s under-secretary of security, explained that the proposed real-name registration is meant to curb criminality, phone harassment, prostitution and even online extortion.
But activists and rights group say it is another way for authorities to restrict people’s freedoms.
“The ability for people to be easily reachable and connect to the internet is important for a prosperous digital economy,” Hong Kong-based IT security expert Leo Weese told the Hong Kong Free Press.
“Placing arbitrary restrictions on who can and cannot communicate with the world contravenes the desire to develop and expand Hong Kong’s economy.”
The public consultation is scheduled to be held for the next month until February 28, and implementation is expected to be completed in a year’s time.
The development comes amid the South China Morning Post report that Beijing is imposing a tighter grip on the Asian financial hub.
China has signalled a more hands-on approach to Hong Kong affairs early last year when it replaced the heads of the Liaison Office in the city.
The semi-autonomous territory was transferred to China from the United Kingdom in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” principle.