Foreigner tracking confusion

A decision has been made for most foreigners in Thailand compulsorily to use special SIM cards in their mobile phones.  Initially, the rule was said to apply to foreign tourists and to one year visa holders for work, marriage or retirement.  The secretary general of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) said the move was to enhance national security but needed further discussion and would take six months to introduce.  However, a government spokesman subsequently stated that the requirement would apply to tourists but not to “expats” although no definition of the term was given.

MediumMobile operators can preset some technical features in SIM cards to ensure that they can always track users who will not be able to turn off this function.  The NBTC claims that the policy is not a restriction of foreigners’ rights as they will be tracked by the authorities only if they are criminal suspects under a court order.  However, Thai nationals will not be subject to the new regulation “as we can already track Thais”.

The NBTC announcement has set off a wave of comments, especially in the social media, about the desirability and practicality of the measure.  Many bloggers feel that this is one more anti-foreigner move after the recent decision to introduce a new immigration form for visa extensions which requires personal information such as hangouts, vehicle ownership and local bank account details.  Although the NBTC has claimed that Malaysia and Singapore are both due to introduce the new SIM card innovation, it is not clear that these neighboring countries currently have the necessary technology or the political will to do so.

It is not clear how the Thai authorities would enforce the ruling.  Some commentators believe that free “tracking” SIM cards would be handed out on incoming flights or given at immigration entry points nationwide.  Such a procedure is already used by several countries, for example Sri Lanka, but as a public relations and welcoming gesture without tracking implications.  But the Thai authorities have not yet given a commitment that the new SIM cards would be free.

Nor are Thailand’s many long-term retirees clear about the implications for them, if indeed they are to be included in the net.  Many are not computer-savvy and do not own a mobile phone.  It is not clear whether those with mobile devices would need to report to their operator to change the SIM card.  A spokesperson for AIS said that she knew nothing of the new regulations and thought that it would be months before clarity was on the horizon.

Further concerns have been raised about the effectiveness of the move as it may not work on some phones, especially those purchased and registered abroad.  Indeed, the NBTC has already suggested that such phones will not be covered by the new regulation.  Nor will the policy work for foreigners who no longer use their mobiles and have abandoned their registration.  When their numbers are reissued to a new subscriber, a whole set of unresolved issues are thrown up about identification.

Although there is a consensus that Thailand does harbor some foreign criminal elements, especially in the area of financial fraud, it is far from clear that the SIM card news will help to counter them.  There are all sorts of ways to circumvent the proposal including use of phones registered abroad, putting a mobile in the name of a relative or friend, or even paying a third party to purchase one.  If the third party was a Thai national, there would be no requirement anyway to have the tracking technology.

The NBTC has accepted that there will now be a period of consultation with interested parties such as mobile phone operators, the customs department and various government agencies.  It is to be hoped that discussions will also occur with tourist agencies who will be able to see that long lines of impatient tourists at immigration entry points, unable to understand what the new SIM cards are all about, are the last thing that is required if Thailand’s stated aim of encouraging international tourism is to avoid a torpedo shock.

Everyone can agree that criminally-minded foreigners, whether potential terrorists or large-scale money launderers, should be kept out of the country by all lawful means.  But the rash introduction of a compulsory scheme which may achieve little in practice but will compromise lucrative tourism – which amounts to around ten percent of the gross national product – is likely to lead to far more problems than it solves.  In other words, it is folly to throw the baby out with the bath water.

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