Mandatory ‘real name’ registration by prepaid SIM card users: Considerations for policymakers

Mandatory registration of prepaid SIM cards is a policy that a number of governments have adopted in recent years. It requires consumers to provide proof of identity in order to activate a prepaid mobile SIM card. The primary justification for this policy is that having a named individual associated with every mobile connection could help law enforcement agencies apprehend criminals, leading to a reduction in criminal and anti-social behaviour.

To date, there has been no empirical evidence to demonstrate a direct link between the introduction of SIM registration and a reduction in associated crime. Nevertheless, prepaid SIM registration is currently mandated in around 90 countries but there is no consistent approach in how the policy is developed or implemented across these countries.

The GSMA has just published a new report, which highlights best practices and opportunities in countries where SIM registration is implemented effectively. It also outlines a number of challenges and inconsistencies around the implementation of SIM registration policies. Finally, the report proposes recommendations for policymakers who are considering introducing or updating SIM registration policies in their respective countries.

Some of the key takeaways from the GSMA’s work on this topic are outlined below:

‘Proof of ID’ requirements vary significantly across countries 

The types of customer identity documents that mobile operators are asked to check as part of mandatory SIM registration processes vary – from government-issued identity cards and passports, to letters from the ‘village chief’ certifying the identity of the person being registered. However, in a number of countries, consumers who lack any official proof of ID risk being disconnected from mobile communications altogether. Current estimates suggest that there are 1.5 billion people around the world who do not have any form of identity and would therefore be unable to register a mobile SIM in their own name, where SIM registration is mandated. Consequently (and ironically), the same policy that aims to reduce crime may be taking away those consumers’ means to report a crime or call emergency services.

Effective identity verification requires a way to check the authenticity of ID documents

Most SIM registration policies require mobile operators to verify the user’s identity documents or even take their biometric measurements (e.g. thumbprints). However, these attributes can only be effectively verified against an official database where such details had been formally logged through a government-led registration campaign or at the point of issue. In several countries where SIM registration is mandated, mobile operators can record the required details that the customer presents during the registration process but have no means to verify their authenticity because of a lack of national identity databases. Where such verification means are unavailable, the registration process could be compromised, either deliberately (where a customer produces fraudulent documents) or as a result of human error (by the person recording the registration details).

Operators are in a unique position to offer a form of digital identity to those who lack any identity documents

With the increasing importance of citizens having a secure digital identity and where there are issues with the availability of official identity documents, there may be a role for operators to support the government in the creation of a unique identity that can be authenticated and used for a variety of mobile and non-mobile services. This will, in part, help individuals who lack formal identity documents to access communication services but also potentially financial, e-Government and other value-added services that could deliver incremental value – not just to people’s lives but also to economic growth, through the uptake of new services via the mobile platform and the creation of jobs, etc.

Clearly, while mobile operators should not replace the role of the state as the provider of a legal identity, they are uniquely placed to help underserved members of society benefit from services that would otherwise be unavailable to them as unregistered users. The GSMA is currently investigating these opportunities as part of its Digital Identity programme.

Increasing the opportunity to use mobile registration data for value-added services also increases the incentive to clean and maintain accurate data. This benefits consumers, governments and operators, to the extent that the registration requirements are proportional, reasonable from a cost perspective and any risks of social exclusion or to consumers’ privacy are mitigated.

Six recommendations for governments considering mandating SIM registration

The GSMA report concludes by making six recommendations to policymakers who are considering introducing or revising their SIM registration policies. These recommendations could be summarised as follows:

  • Consult with the mobile industry before finalising the policy and consider citizens’ privacy rights
  • Set registration deadlines that are realistic and reflect local market circumstances
  • Ensure registration requirements are clear and unambiguous
  • Encourage the storage of electronic (rather than paper-based) records
  • Encourage the registered ID to be used for other value-added mobile and digital services
  • Contribute to consumer awareness campaigns and to mobile operators’ operational costs

The GSMA believes that by following these recommendations, policymakers will go a long way towards ensuring that any proposed mandatory SIM registration policy requirements are proportional and realistic, enabling – rather than inhibiting – services that can improve people’s lives and build a more inclusive society.

For more information or questions on the report, please email publicpolicy@gsma.com