Telecom operators must put SIM cards questions to rest

opinion June 19, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

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Recent arrest of three Chinese in aranyaprathet should ring security alarm bells



When hundreds of thousands of SIM cards were seized from suspects who allegedly used them to boost the numbers of “likes” on social media pages, it’s natural to focus criticism on human online vanity. What should really alarm people, however, is what if someone with darker intentions got his or her hands on such a large amount of SIM cards.

In other words, what if a terrorist was in possession of such a massive amount of SIM cards? If this case 

is any indication, the scary scenario is not too far from reality. The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications (NBTC) is demanding an answer from the three big telecom operators – True Corp, AIS and DTAC – who should come clean on why such a vast number of their products end up in the suspects’ hands.

A few days ago, police captured three Chinese suspects who allegedly had over 340,000 SIM cards. The trio reportedly told interrogators they used the SIM cards to generate “likes” and page views online in exchange for hefty fees. 

The manipulation was aimed at creating a false impression about online popularity, which could mislead advertisers or investors.

Boosting “likes” and page views is common. What makes people wonder – and some shiver – is how easy it apparently was for just a few people to hold such an enormous amount of SIM cards. Everyone knows how dangerous they can be if ending up in the wrong hands, and in many places, Thailand excluded, there are strict rules governing their purchase.

This issue is not a corporation public relations matter; it’s corporate responsibility. Selling SIM cards is important to the business bottom line, but in today’s world, it’s important to public safety or security as well. America allows its citizens to buy guns easily and we all know what happens. It can be a lot worse with easily purchasable SIM cards.

Preliminary reports suggest the three major telecom operators have been willing to fully cooperate with the NBTC inquiry. But there has been speculation that many of the seized SIM cards could have been bought in big lots, meaning irregular purchase methods may have been used. But whether the SIM cards were bought through normal or irregular channels, the companies must give full cooperation and not be afraid to lose face.

Several countries acknowledge that prepaid SIM cards constitute a security concern. Measures introduced include recording customers’ data and re-registering current users. These measures need to be constantly reviewed as, over the years and due to an exponential expansion in the prepaid SIM card market, the practice of recording customers’ details has eroded. For example, some retailers had recorded names like ‘Santa Claus’, while other retailers simply record their own names as having purchased the prepaid SIM card, according to a study in a neighbouring country.

A lot of blame can be put on the retailers, but, nonetheless, the main telecom service providers certainly have information on things like unusual sales jumps or “best-performing” sales outlets. It’s this kind of information that the companies should look into, and share what they know with the authorities. 

At present, the three Chinese suspects are being detained on charges of working without a permit and of possessing smuggled mobile phones. No Thai laws can prosecute them for manipulating social media, as they reportedly targeted only Chinese products. Boosting “likes” or page views, however, is the least of our concerns.