Saturday, April 30, 2016

Europe: cross a border and your cell phone may ask for your pin

Alternative title: When customer service meets the surveillance state.

After the recent spate of terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, security experts reached into their drawers - desk drawers, to be exact - and pulled out some of their favorite surveillance measures.
At the EU level, the slow introduction of passenger name record (PNR) data retention was quickly adopted, and the K-Landnews just as quickly published indispensable advice on choosing a non-terrorist airplane meal.

Among calls for more CCTV cameras in public places, more police, more this and that, tightening the rules for "anonymous" SIM cards for traditional cell phones and smart phones/tablets was given wide press coverage in Germany.

The news reported all sales of prepaid SIM cards will require government issued ID. Along with the announcement came the usual "big security hole" etc. warnings by the fearful and the disingenuous.

Somehow everybody had already forgotten that the authorities had to explicitly devise an exception to German telecommunications law rules for refugees. Numerous refugees found, to their detriment, that not knowing reporting requirements regarding SIM cards would lead to their card being deactivated by a prepaid service provider.
After the first three months in Germany, refugees will receive a notice asking them to update their address or face shutdown of the card.

So, there definitely is no "major hole" in how Germany regulates unpaid SIM cards.

The ID requirement comes with a more far reaching relaxation of access to provider databases by police and intelligence agencies. These bodies will be allowed to perform "partial name searches" against the databases, in other words wildcard searches. Given that German police announced a high profile arrest after the Brussels attacks, only to find that they had arrested someone with a similar name as the suspect, you can wonder whether wildcard searches are a bad idea or whether they might help innocents.

However, both press reports and panic stricken statements of politicians on the issue of prepaid SIM cards are less comprehensive than one could demand.

For example, the blogster has not seen a single mention of the fact that some providers will make users enter the SIM card's pin after crossing a national border inside Europe.

This may be meant to protect against theft of a phone or SIM card, or it may be a way to authenticate users after crossing  border but, either way, it is something surveillance experts will probably appreciate.

The blogster has not heard of the big telecommunications providers who offer regular subscription plans doing this, though it may be none of their users finds it noteworthy. Or, it might just be accepted practice in Europe, although we would expect tourists to complain about it. 

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