SIM-tracking shows its sinister side

15 Aug 2016

As featured in DisruptiveViews.

It may seem to regular readers that I am besotted with privacy and security, but I have good reason to be. And so should you for that matter. Disturbing news is emerging daily of companies tracking our every move and every action via smartphones and wearables in order to profile us and deliver to use “the ultimate customer experience”.

We have insurance companies monitoring our driving habits via connected cars in order to calculate the optimum coverage for us, supposedly at a price commensurate with the risk we pose to their coffers. One wonders if the premium will go up if you own a car that can be hacked and easily broken into by criminals.

We also know that governments have been monitoring our communications for years, ostensibly for purposes of national security, but who knows what else they ‘uncover’ in the process.

Learning analytics

This week came reports that universities in Australia are tracking students supposedly to determine if they might drop out. Well, at least that’s the excuse they are giving. The report in the Sydney Morning Herald states that at the University of Melbourne, Wi-Fi routers track students as they move through the campus and leave a digital trail with their mobile phones and at the University of Sydney, students’ online activity is matched with their demographic background to predict who might drop out.

“It’s called ‘learning analytics’ and universities say it is the key to improving retention rates and the student experience.” (Funny, telcos have been doing that for years to determine potential churners and set their ‘save teams’ onto them.) The information the universities are after will also, get this, be used to monitor traffic on campus. Surely those academic analysts would simply get off their behinds and look out the window, walk around or monitor the countless cameras planted around their establishments to determine traffic patterns.

‘Special SIMs’

But all that is almost a non-event when you compare it to the Thai government’s plan to track all foreigners or ‘farangs’ via their mobile phones. The Thai military rulers have decided that all non-Thai passport holders will have to have a ‘special SIM’ that can track their location 24×7. The policy is planned to come into effect in six months.

No exceptions would be made for resident aliens on long-term visas such as those for employment, marriage or retirement. “We will separate SIM cards for foreigners and Thais,” Takorn Tantasith, Secretary General of the Office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission said. “The location will always be turned on in this SIM card for foreigners. And it cannot be turned off.”

Takorn said he was unconcerned about any rights or privacy issues raised by the system, as he likened it to foreigners writing in the address of their residences in immigration documents. Oh really? Giving a residential or hotel address or being tracked relentlessly by a military junta that is able to change laws or personal rights at will are not the same.

For a country that relies so heavily on tourism and foreign investment this sort of draconian ‘big brother’ approach will do little to “maintain national security and prevent the transnational crime” that is the basis of Takorn’s rationale. The implication is that foreigners need to be tracked because they are the ones committing the majority of crimes and exploring devices – likely brought about because of one bomb attack on a Bangkok shrine linked to Uighur militants, radical members of an aggrieved ethnic minority in western China, who struck to avenge Thailand’s forced repatriation of Uighurs to China and Thailand’s dismantling of a human smuggling ring.

Of course, it will make little difference in the broader scheme of things. Anyone experienced with Thai policing and dealing with officials knows that there are ‘other’ ways to sort things out. The ‘foreign criminals’ they are seeking out seem to able to enter the country at will and should have no trouble circumventing the rules and the tracking – or they won’t use a phone at all!

Scary scenario

This is a plan that US presidential candidate, Donald Drumpf (his ancestral name) would be proud of and will probably adopt when he finds out. I wonder if he would differentiate between Mexican SIMs and Muslim SIMs. The mind boggles.

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