Hong Kong eyes push on mobile phone SIM cards that could stoke privacy fears

FILE PHOTO: A man with a protective face mask takes his lunch breaks at the financial Central district, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Hong Kong, China March 27, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong is canvassing public opinion over a real-name registration system for mobile phone SIM cards, in a bid to fight crime in the Chinese-ruled city, it said on Friday, a move that is likely to stoke concerns over privacy.

Many countries have such registration systems, but some people in Hong Kong fear such a change could assist a crackdown on dissent that began with Beijing’s imposition of a sweeping national security law last year.

Currently only mobile users on SIM service contracts must register actual personal details in Hong Kong, though anyone can buy a pre-paid SIM card from most convenience stores.

The rule aims to keep criminals from concealing their identities and put a stop to a “common tool committing serious and violent crimes that threaten public safety,” the government said in a statement.

It has set a Feb. 28 deadline for comment on the proposed compulsory registration, which would require users to furnish full names and an identity document.

In recent months, China has bolstered its security apparatus in the former British colony, creating a security agency with broad powers beyond the scrutiny of the courts.

The tighter measures come despite the promise of a high degree of autonomy from Beijing when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Hong Kong has one of Asia’s highest smartphone penetration rates, at almost 80% of its population of 7.5 million. Its only regional peers are other developed economies, such as Singapore and South Korea.

In 2019, Hong Kong had about 14.5 million pre-paid SIM card subscribers, an increase of 16.6% on the year, says German database firm Statista.

Reporting by Jessie Pang; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Clarence Fernandez