Thai authorities are requiring cellphone users in the Deep South to have their photographs taken as an extra step in registering SIM cards, saying it could help prevent bombings by insurgents, but rights advocates warn this could threaten people’s privacy.
Some 1 million cellphone users in the troubled southern border region have till the end of October to register their SIM cards with Thailand’s three mobile phone providers, or have their service disconnected if they don’t comply, said officials with the regional Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC-4).
Cellphone users already are required to register their SIM cards with providers but now are being asked to show up at providers’ outlets to present identification and have their photos taken as an extra layer of security, officials said.
Under an old system, phone users could register their phones with the authorities by presenting I.D. cards, but insurgents still have been able to use SIM cards registered under other people’s names, or buy cards from neighboring countries or over the internet, ISOC-4 spokesman Col. Pramote Prom-in said.
“We found SIM cards used in some bombings, including the attack on the bronze mermaid statue on Samila Beach in Songkhla province late last year in which a suspect in the bombing admitted that he had ordered a SIM card online,” Pramote said.
He was referring to bomb explosions that targeted the Golden Mermaid statute, a beachside landmark in a district of Songkhla province that lies outside the conflict-ridden Deep South.
“Some SIM cards were ordered online from outside of the region or from a neighboring country, or phone numbers were registered with someone else’s names,” Pramote added.
A security official who asked not to be named said insurgents could use a clock, radio, walkie-talkie or a cell phone to detonate homemade bombs. Roadside bombings and other attacks are a frequent occurrence in the Deep South, where a separatist insurgency has persisted for decades in the predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking region.
On April 9 and on June 21, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) announced in the Royal Gazette that residents of the Deep South, as well as visitors from outside the region, were required to register their cellphones in person via local branches of the country’s big three mobile phone providers: AIS, TrueMove H and DTAC.
However, the notices in the gazette did not state that cellphone users would be required to have their photos taken – and human rights proponents see this as cause for concern.
“I understand the NBTC announced the regulation but it is not specific on photographing,” Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross Cultural Foundation, a Bangkok-based NGO, told Benar News.
“DTAC staff said it simply keeps photographs without filing them into a database of faces, but it seems that the ISOC-4 is filing the photos in their database. That is too much and a breach of privacy rights,” Pornpen said.
A member of the National Human Rights Commission expressed similar concern.
“Some people use a facial scanner to access their devices or when they deal with their bank. But if facial identities are kept or used by authorities without their knowledge, privacy could be violated,” Human Rights Commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit told Benar.
Col. Pramote defended the new measure against criticism. He said the photographic information would be kept at a centralized database, but he did not give more information about it.
“The SIM card owner’s photograph is required, no matter whether they are citizens, soldiers or whoever. They must be under the same rule in order to protect innocents from fraudsters, and insurgents who used other’s I.D. cards to buy SIM cards,” Pramote said.
“We don’t mean to violate anyone’s rights. This is for the benefit of the people but insurgents, their sympathizers and fraudsters will suffer,” he added. “One can give up his or her cellphone because of fear of verification. That is one’s right but he or she can’t say that their rights are violated.”
The Deep South, which is heavily militarized and under emergency rule, borders Malaysia and encompasses Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces as well as four districts in Songkhla province. The region has seen nearly 7,000 people die in violence since the decades-old insurgency flared up in early 2004.