You'll need a passport to buy a mobile phone in the UK

The proposal to create a British giga-database tracking every phone call, text-message, public transit usage, CCTV capture, purchase, educational experience, medical detail, plane or train ride, toll-usage, and other transactions continues to show its absurdity. The Times's David Leppard has noticed that the legislation will also require people who buy mobile phones in the UK to present a passport and have it registered with their number. Note that even in China, throwaway prepaid SIMs are the norm -- the UK proposal makes China look like a bastion of privacy and good government.

Terrorists will just buy phones abroad and roam on them in the UK, of course.

A compulsory national register for the owners of all 72m mobile phones in Britain would be part of a much bigger database to combat terrorism and crime. Whitehall officials have raised the idea of a register containing the names and addresses of everyone who buys a phone in recent talks with Vodafone and other telephone companies, insiders say.

The move is targeted at monitoring the owners of Britain’s estimated 40m prepaid mobile phones. They can be purchased with cash by customers who do not wish to give their names, addresses or credit card details.

Passports will be needed to buy mobile phones


  1. In Italy we always needed a PASSPORT or Personal ID to buy a SIM Card (mobile phones can be changed but the SIM are personal)… but anyway Italy shouldn’t be used as a benchmark for Civil Liberties…

  2. #2: Uh, is there an alternate universe where there are more than one? (I’m guessing you’re asking which PART east or west.)

    Am I the only one to think of Bourne Ultimatum? At least now they know agents can’t secretly contact journalists who may know the government’s dirty secrets.

    but in all seriousness, this is pretty awful.

  3. look on the bright side; dying languages will be revived, new tongues created. The need for privacy will never go away.

  4. OK: pass the word: at this time, at this place, everyone who purchased a phone (with ID) show up.
    OK, everyone here? Good. Now, none of you know each other right? Good. Now, trade phones with the person on the right and walk away. Rinse. Repeat.

  5. Has anyone in British jurisprudence stood up yet to point out the obvious? The Rule of Law is based on trust – not force. Just as a thin sprinkling of police serves to keep order because people do not think in terms of making war on the police, so the Rule of Law depends on most of the populace not thinking the government is actively out to get them. If they persist in oppressive measures like this, soon there will no voluntary cooperation about anything. The social contract will have shifted to: “we’ll do it at gun point”. Wholesale tax evasion as they have in China is a logical development of this. I suppose many of the upper class long for a return to the days of the common scum tugging their forelocks and leaping clear of the carriages of their betters – but too many have seen otherwise and it ain’t gonna happen again.

  6. This is bound to happen. To at least be suggested. Each person who hears this should be enraged over it and do what needs be done in order to prevail against these injustices.

    But privacy will always be available. It just depends on how far one is willing to tread to obtain it.

    As much as I hate to admit how right George Carlin is about our rights, he’s completely correct. We currently lease our rights from the government.

    Quoted from George Carlin’s final live standup:

    Folks I hate to spoil your fun, but… there’s no such thing as rights. They’re imaginary. We made ’em up. Like the boogie man. Like Three Little Pigs, Pinocchio, Mother Goose, shit like that. Rights are an idea. They’re just imaginary. They’re a cute idea. Cute. But that’s all. Cute…and fictional. But if you think you do have rights, let me ask you this, “where do they come from?” People say, “They come from God. They’re God given rights.” Awww fuck, here we go again…’

  7. The situation in Japan is even worse — a passport is not sufficient.

    You specifically need proof of residence in Japan (or a resident alien card) to purchase or activate a mobile phone, prepaid or otherwise.

    So tourists just staying for a month cannot legally obtain mobile service. The primary effect of this law is to generate an underground market in phone rentals.

  8. #11: Not for long, they’re already pushing for registering prepaids here, too (“only drugdealers and pedos need privacy”).

    #13: As to why see above.

  9. Somebody really hasn’t thought this through. Will Bruce Schneier please step up and put them right.

    There are 40m phones unregistered PAYG phones out there already in the UK. I look forward to all the Telcos disabling these until the owner registers. I also look forward to Tescos requiring photo ID when purchasing a new one or buying minutes at the checkout counter. And to the Telcos building the systems to capture, store and pass to the gummint, the registration. At the end of all that there will be 5M unaccounted for and another 5m where the owner faked the details and/or passed their SIM to someone else and/or their phone and SIM were stolen by some pikey scum in Camden Market.

    So we have 30m law abiding citizens who are not a problem anyway and 10m false positives. Oh, yes. That will really help the war on t’rah!

    I try and picture a time somewhere in the future where privacy is seen as a basic human right and the racheted-up command and control, surveillance machine has been dismantled. But short of a complete breakdown in Western society I can’t see it. I also can’t picture any civil political process whereby the population can force it to be dismantled. Which leaves you with some choices. Just go along with it. Play the invisible ninja game and actively subvert it. Just quietly screw it up whenever you get the chance. Wear a hoody 24/7.

    It used to be that whatever happened in California was 5 years ahead of what happened on the East Coast and the UK. I guess I should be proud that the UK is leading the way and what happens here will happen in California in 5 years.

  10. Seems like an easy way for the government to make a bit more cash by ensuring that everyone gets a passport and keeps it up to date and paid for every ten years… especially teenagers and children and the elderly. Another great scam brought to you by the people who saved us from the Conservatives ;)

  11. Gilbert Anonymous here:
    Utter and absolute bullshiat! I’m going to go and watch my copy of V for Vendetta–and this time take notes.

  12. Yep, and a nice way to get people who wouldn’t normally have passports (kids on their parents passports, I’m looking at you) to get the nice new shiny biometric enabled ones…

  13. It should be mind numbingly obvious to anyone by now that Labours “Anti-terror” laws have nothing to do with terror, and everything to do with control.

    Unfortunately, although I trust the conservatives not to push such laws through, I don’t trust them to remove them once they are in power.

    On the other side of that coin, we have labour supporters in the UK who still complain about some of Maggie’s more disagreeable policies – they go all quiet when you point out that Labour have had 10 years to get rid of anything they didn’t agree with…

    It’s true what they say: It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.

  14. In Japan you can’t buy a mobile phone unless you have a work permit. Some other South East Asian countries are the same way, Korea I think requires a local as a co-signer and I believe Taiwan requires a passport, but I do remember the unbelieavable frustration of limping around Osaka trying to get a mobile with a fractured ankle so I could at least call my employers to tell them I wouldn’t be able to make it. I might add that so many Japanese use mobiles, there aren’t many telephone booths left either.

  15. That’s a bit hypocritical considering the Passport office say “Do not carry around your passport unnecessarily”.

  16. oh my god … i’ve just realised that people can send letters without having to register, give a blood and urine sample or be personality checked in any way at all! Aaargh! Someone just told me that people can meet up face to face and do something called ‘talking’ without the government having any record of the time, place or content of the ‘conversation’ at all! I’m scared and will not be going out again, ever.

  17. It is already getting harder to move contract phones between people. In the past, I have on a number of occasions in the past taken out a UK mobile phone contract in my name for newcomers to the country who don’t have the requisite pieces of paper to get a contract. Then, after a few months, changed it into the name of the person who is actually using it.

    The last time I did this with O2, they refused to change it out of my name to my friend, a writer who’d been overseas for about 8 years. They said that because the initial identity checks were done against me, they could not swap the account into another name. I asked what would happen if my friend and I were civil partners and were splitting up – would they not allow him to take his number with him? Their answer was yes – he could not take the number. I asked if this would be the case if we were a married straight couple with both phones in the husband’s name – would they stop the wife taking her number – again they said yes. She would lose her number.

    O2 had a decent billing history from my friend – over a year of him paying the bill from his bank account. They had the phone in my name, but had allowed him to change the address and security questions via the website, so the contact details they had for “me” were wrong. Their whole system seems broken.

    There is currently no legal reason for them to definitively tie a phone to a person, and as they had a full and exemplary payment history, they don’t really have a business reason. So I can only assume that this stupidity is in place to foil cunning terrorists. I feel safer already.

  18. a bill of rights is required in the U.K. the government are cynically using the centuries old relationship of trust the U.K has had with it’s executive to shut down civic freedom. ie – you can do anything you like, as long as it’s not one of the things we’ve said you can’t do. this is very different to having rights as enshrined in a bill, which ring-fences areas the government cannot go.

    the EU human rights convention helps with some of it, but looses its efficacy where ‘security’ is concerned. all the home secretaries since michael howard (remember ‘repetitive beats’, ‘groups of more that 4 people’ etc?) have understood this and driven the wedge in further.

    who i talk to and when is none of their fucking business.

  19. @22: I live in South Korea, and can confirm that foreigners can’t get phone plans (or get loans, or own businesses, or even open bank accounts or credit card accounts in most cases) without a Korean undersigning everything. In practice, until recently, foreigners would just buy sketchy used prepaid phones and charge them–my current phone’s been through a half dozen owners by now. But this summer, they changed the rules to allow employers to underwrite some employee contracts, phone plans included.

    Call it what you will, but if the UK rules are anything like the Korean rules, they’re little more than thinly-veiled xenophobia. Fits with the UK’s new restrictions on immigration and the oddly under-reported cancellation of England’s funding programs for research students from outside the EU.

    I know where I’m not wanted–I’ll take my tuition elsewhere, thank you very much!

  20. One major Japanese carrier (Softbank) now requires:
    Alien Registration Card
    Credit Card
    Visa in previously mentioned passport for the term of the plan, if you aren’t getting a prepaid.

  21. And this is one good reason why so many people here in Scotland support independence – we want an end to this police state garbage, and also not to elect Tories!

  22. Somehow the UK is making the whole US Homeland Security thing look soft.

    Where are protesters when you need them?

    Wake up UK!

  23. Curiously, the pidgeon suggestion is not as stupid as it sounds. Bletchly Park, the birthplace of modern computing, has a display of heroic pidgeons from the WWII, and the untraceable messages they delivered.

  24. Don’t worry – it won’t be long before a CD gets lost, containing lots of names and numbers including Ms Smith’s, and someone publishes her mobile number so we can all phone and tell her personally where to go and join her local fascist party, buy some jackboots, or recruit a few ex-Stasi to learn some more tricks from. (Perhaps not quite what most of us would tell her, though, I’m guessing.)

    Seems like a few more people are waking up to #12’s perspective – see last few paragraphs of Henry Porter in this week’s Observer:

  25. ..And what else will you HAVE to apply and PAY for soon when you renew/apply for a UK Passport…

    Our old friend the ID card.

    So, Want to travel? –> need passport –> need ID card will become

    So, Want to travel or use a Mobile? –> need passport –> need ID card.

    The UK population are sometimes pushed to resistance by the actions of government (eg Poll Tax Riots/protests) But ID card introduction has been so insidious, and introduced in such a piecemeal, underhand way a) people haven’t noticed, b) there hasn’t been an ‘Event'(eg a date when we must all apply for one) to galvanise the populus.

    We were never so enfeebled and cowering during the ‘Troubles’ when real bombs were killing and maiming indiscriminately on a weekly basis.

  26. my terror plot just failed, HOW am I going to get a prepaid phone now? .. oh wait, im gonna give 30 quid to teh bum on a corner to buy it for me …

  27. Of course, the dodgy people they want to catch will use fake passports, therefore only us, honest and law-abiding citizens, will be under surveillance. So absurd.

  28. The same thing here in Japan — except I not only had to show my ID, but my national foreigner registration card.

  29. It’s strange, the British mentality. Oppress us overtly – use the Luftwaffe to drop bombs on us nightly or the IRA to detonate car bombs – and we’ll rise up, band together, and soldier on through with a sheer national determination that once made us the greatest nation on the planet.

    Oppress us gradually, remove our freedoms and our dignity a small piece at a time, and we’ll never, ever react beyond a small grumble to our peers over a cup of tea. We’re very accepting to gradual deterioration.

    If someone had come along at the height of the British empire and tried to take all our territories from us by force, they’d have gone home with a bloody nose (although Americans are entitled to chip in with some jeers here if they like). A century of piecemeal disintegration and we’re left as simply an average nation that still wants to be a major player on the world stage. We don’t understand that, apart from our history, we have allowed the very best of Britain to vanish and though we keep looking around for someone to blame for this, it is, collectively, all our faults.

  30. #28, hassan-i-sabbah:

    Sim cards.Buy them now.lots and lots of them.

    Not sure that would help. Presumably the IMEI (which tracks the phone hardware itself) would also be recorded.

    My phone company gives out free PAYG SIM cards on occasion, there must be zillions of them out there. And I’m sure there’s a way to reprogram IMEI numbers.

  31. It’s weird when you see who defeated the Magna Carta defiling 42 day holding-without-charge bill (but s’ok ‘cus it’s jus fer yer actual terrorists)

    Not the elected representatives, but the House of Lords. This speaks volumes for the nature of our MPs.

  32. That’s nothing.

    In South Africa, they’re planning to not only make you register your sim cards (ID, and address), they also want to make all foreigners arriving in the country register before they’re allowed to use international roaming!

    And they plan to implement this before the World Cup here in 2010… although I haven’t heard any noise about this lately, so hopefully they’ve come to their senses.

  33. Awesome. Thanks to networks giving me a free phone every time I start a new contract, I currently have three working but unused phones sitting in my desk drawer (I know, I should send them to chairty…).

    I’ll buy up a hhandful of pre-paid SIMs, wait for the law to kick in and wait for the bidding war to commence!

    *sigh* I know I shouldn’t joke about something so serious, but if I were to type out what I really think about this and all the other losses of freedom we’ve suffered, I’d have to resort to language that breaches BB’s TOS and all standards of common decency.

    Also, @28:
    It doesn’t strike me as even slightly odd that it’s difficult to put someone else’s name on a contract. O2 (well, the re-seller) chose to sign a contract with *you* based on the personal information and credit history you supplied. They didn’t enter into a contract with “you or whichever friend you want to swap with”. How would you feel if O2 decided to move your contract over to another supplier who you’d never heard of but you had reason to expect will give bad service?

  34. Could someone blow up Old Baily yet? Or does a party actually named Norsefire need to be in control first?

  35. Sorry to double-post but are SIM cards actually an issue here? I was under the impression that a phone could already be tracked by its IMEI, which is unique to the handset itself. The UK police encourage you to report the IMEIs of stolen phones so they can be deactivated ad identified regardless of what SIM a theif puts in them.

    @43 – I’ll willing to start up the party if it’ll help hurry things along. Also, I really liked the Leader’s coat in the film version; do I get that free?

  36. With the post fascist party making gains in Italy recently and all the stories about Britain using V for Vendetta as an instruction manual, seems like a lot of Europe is shifting to the authoritarian right. What’s up with that?

  37. Well, here in Argentina you not only need an ID for purchasing a cell phone, but some narrow minded politicians thought it would be a good idea to also request your fingerprints (!) to buy one. This is not in effect yet, but…

  38. in singapore, they did this a few years back, and all prior buyers/owners of prepaid cards have to register their number or they would not be able to add credits.

    now if you wanna buy a prepaid card you need some form of i.d. or another. (national identity cards for residents, and passports for non-residents)

  39. As he opened his eyes and put it down, somebody beside him said ‘Tumble?’ He looked over and saw this jawless character with little pink glasses and a little pink mouth,

    ‘Your phone,’ the pink-mouthed man said. ‘Or fax. Guaranteed tumble, one month. Thirty days or your next thirty free. Unlimited long, domestic.

    p.184 Virtual Light, William Gibson

  40. It should be mind numbingly obvious to anyone by now that Labours “Anti-terror” laws have nothing to do with terror, and everything to do with control.

    Unfortunately, although I trust the conservatives not to push such laws through, I don’t trust them to remove them once they are in power.

    On the other side of that coin, we have labour supporters in the UK who still complain about some of Maggie’s more disagreeable policies – they go all quiet when you point out that Labour have had 10 years to get rid of anything they didn’t agree with…

    It’s true what they say: It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.

  41. As with ID cards, if this ever makes it into the real world I’ll eat my hat. The pendulum is swinging back against the surveillance society and creeping erosion of fundamental civil liberties.

    As an observer of the UK domestic political scene over the last thirty years or so, I see a lot of straws in the wind suggesting that the tide is turning (pardon the mixed metaphors.) When the shadow Home Secretary resigned to protest a particular high profile issue (42 days in jail without charges), and the “surveillance state” issues in general (CCTV, ID cards, criminal record checks, ubiquitous state databases on the population, security theatre in response to 9/11, etc etc) you KNOW something’s up.

    I noticed that Sunday Times story on their front page yesterday; it was bagged up, so I could only read a couple of lines above the fold, but they managed to get a line about “raising fears amongst privacy campaigners of the surveillance state” in there. Interestingly, a lot of this stuff is actually being picked up by the very same reactionary tabloids that howled about paedophiles, immigrants, crime, terrorism and so on, as a stick to beat the Labour government with! This strikes me as beautifully poetic justice. Brown’s picked up a short-term lift on account of how he does look good wearing a dark tie and a solemn expression whilst appearing to save the world from economic catastrophe. However in six months’ time, when it becomes apparent that avoiding catastrophe has not meant avoiding 2.5 or 3 million unemployed, that’s going to be painted as “rescuing the fat cats”. (Don’t get me started on the sickening hypocrisy with which the “kick-a-banker” movement has got going over the last couple of months… )

  42. The last two years in Chicago I have watched the pay phones in office buildings ripped out, no reason given. They haven’t even bothered to cover up the scars in the stores and public ways. Just forlorn dividers, holes in the wall with steel cable dangling. The Mayor was in a hurry to get rid of them, and his famous esthetic sense wasn’t an issue, it seems.

    There are pay phones on the L platforms. With camera domes conspicuously in front of them. At the State Street stop, they even have a bank of screens so that you can watch yourself on camera.

    Ever try to phone the cops anonymously on a cell phone? I did it once, and refused to give my name. Silly, but at least I could deny I was using it. Some poor schmuck was about to be beaten by dozens of gangbangers outside my window, so I had to. Of course, a lot of cops have relatives in the street gangs, so a miffed arrested banger could call his cousin and get the number and name of the pendejo who called in the cops. Things you have to remember in the new Police State; the cops aren’t the only people who get access to the call logs.

    States Attorneys looking for correlations, Scientologists trying to track down dissenters or squealers or just plain wanting to crush critics, the mafia, the Russian mob, the street gangs, reporters, your ex-wife, crazed stalker – they are six degrees or less of separation from someone who has access to you superfile. NO, I don’t feel safe where there is no place to hide. Good people do need to be anonymous.

    And you will notice, there are no cameras on our new overlords, and no records of their phone calls. Bush, Cheney, Palin, and all their many associates have bypassed the records laws. The new police state is built for the powerful, not for you. They will publicize finding a pedophile or a mugger, of course, but the real use of all this surveillance is to suppress dissent.

  43. Readers of The Victorian Internet and other tech-histories will see a familiar pattern here: new technology extends what we can do, then the powers that be try to get a handle on it for fear that bad people (real or imagined) are exploiting it.

    Technology moves on, people adopt it, and the government plays catch-up.

    So while this is creepy and overbearing, it’s the same old creepy and overbearing that’s been going on since the telegraph.

  44. You folks should be aware that (AFAIK) the UK government haven’t proposed this yet. It’s just a story in The Times newspaper, and our press is pretty rabid.

    OTOH, given the stuff the government *has* proposed, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

  45. Unfortunately, although I trust the conservatives not to push such laws through, I don’t trust them to remove them once they are in power.

    Cameron could be making these combined abuses a rallying cry, but from my viewpoint only the Liberals are being particularly vocal.

  46. @bugs – when I have done this in the past (with T-Mobile to be precise) there was no problem at all in the new person signing the requisite paperwork and taking over the contract. And as my example shows, in a world of mobile phone number portability, it would prevent a divorcing couple from taking their respective numbers with them if the account was in one person’s name.

    There are plenty of real life examples of where a service provider allows you to sign over your contract to another party – gyms, private members’ clubs, etc.

    Of course, the simple answer to this is to request a PAC from the network operator and move the number to a different mobile network. This is exactly what we did when the network refused to switch the mobile number my sister had into her own name. So yes, O2 can refuse to make the change if the desire, but in the end, they lost a customer.

  47. Bugs @42: “It doesn’t strike me as even slightly odd that it’s difficult to put someone else’s name on a contract.”

    What about a parent who opens an account for their minor child? My ex-husband’s mobile account was originally opened under his father’s name. He had never bothered to change it until he kept getting calls for his father because the number was listed in his father’s name. Once he did decide to change it, all he had to do was fill out a form, which both he and his father signed. Simple.

  48. same old, same old. None of this will do anything to deter or catch criminals or terrorists, those on top will be exempt from it, those on the bottom will fail yet again to mobilize the inert wad to do anything about it.

    I’m thinking slow coup. Canada’s likely since any province can readily secede, there is little to no political awareness and the existing population is sparse. The local politicos are so bush league they can be bought for pittances if they get in the way. There is no fixed cultural boundaries to overcome and the strategy of geography is favorable.

    Pick a province and slowly swamp it with in migration of the not-so-damned-stupid. After you have clear majority, vote independence. Declare the First Human Republic.

  49. Gilbert Anonymous here:
    Jackboots are so last century. I think the blackshirts will be wearing Doc Martins.

  50. I lived in China as an expat, and I had to show my passport to purchase a SIM card. It wasn’t prepaid or throwaway either. I’ve never seen throwaway SIM cards, wouldn’t it mean your number was always changing? The way most service plans worked was that you had to add money to your account by buying cards and calling a number though.

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