Registering mobile phones: is it practical?

Registering mobile phones: is it practical?
By Cian Ginty

The Department of Communications had previously classed plans to introduce mandatory registration of all mobile phones as “not practical” in the fight against crime.

The idea to register mobile phones re-emerged last month in the Programme for Government agreed between government parties.

In a statement released early this year the Department of Communications said that the idea of a register for mobile phones had been extensively reviewed by officials, who concluded that the proposal would be of “limited benefit, in that it would not solve the illegal and inappropriate use of pre-paid mobile phones and was not practical”.

At that time department officials also concluded that problems could occur with regards to the registration of currently held pre-paid phones.

A spokesperson for the Department of Communications told ENN: “Minister Ryan will be discussing the question of mobile phone registration with Minister of State Carey in the coming weeks. Both departments are conscious of the complex legal, technical and data-protection issues that surround this commitment in the Programme for Government.”

The department said that it would, in conjunction with the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, be reviewing the situation and seeking advice from the Attorney General to work to resolve issues as far as practical.

“The Government is looking at all options that can assist in the fight against illicit drugs,” she said.

“If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear. There may well be confidentiality or civil liberties issues but there are lives of people at stake as well, which I believe overrides any of those,” said Pat Carey, Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Minister Carey, with a responsibility for the Drug Strategy, who made the comments in an interview with the Irish Independent.

The new plan aims to stop the current practice of buying pay-as-you-go mobile phones anonymously. Minister of State Carey said it would aid in stopping “rampant use” of mobile phones in prisons. It has been highlighted recently that some criminals have continued to operate, even behind bars. The Irish Prison Service has been slow to introduce signal blocking systems due to possible interference with communication systems used by prison guards.

Minister for State Carey said the new registry would also be used as a tool against lower level drug dealers that use the “shopping-centre carpark, the church car park or the local football field”.

Meanwhile, mobile phone operators are set to meet with the minister on Tuesday and are expected to tell him that his plans are unworkable and that no other European country has ever attempted to register mobile phones. They will also argue that SIM cards can be purchased relatively easily abroad and used in Ireland, thus ensuring user anonymity.

This latter point is something the communications department also alluded to in its statement back in January. “Having looked at the situation in other administrations, considered the ease with which an unregistered foreign or stolen SIM card can be used and the difficulties that would be posed in verifying identity in the absence of a national identification card system, and having consulted with the Office of the Attorney General and other interested parties, it was concluded that the proposal would be of limited benefit…”

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