Law to slow terrorists in Romania stirs privacy debate

22/08/2014

Officials said 13 million pre-paid cards are used in Romania and, apart from terrorism, they can be misused in a wide range of illegal activities.

By Paul Ciocoiu for Southeast European Times in Bucharest -- 22/08/14

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Some in Romania say a new law to register pre-paid SIM cards encroaches on the right to privacy. [AFP]

The Romanian parliament passed a new law in June that makes it obligatory for all users of pre-paid SIM cards to register them, but the move designed to thwart terrorists has sparked an ongoing debate about whether the measure encroaches on the citizens' right to privacy.

Romanian authorities said the law is necessary to fight terrorism and the bill was drafted immediately after the 2012 terror attack in Burgas, Bulgaria, when terrorists used such pre-paid cards.

The Superior Defence Council -- a state body that makes all national security-related decisions -- endorsed the law, saying the SIM cards are serious security vulnerability.

Among regional countries, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey have already implemented SIM card registration. Elsewhere in Europe, Spain introduced mandatory registration after the 2004 terror attacks in Madrid.

The new Romanian law stipulates everybody that already has pre-paid cards must register them within 12 months after the law takes effect on January 1st. It also stipulates those who want to purchase SIM cards next year can do so only with a valid identification card.

Moreover, the law mandates all companies that offer access to wi-fi networks to keep user data for six months. Failing to meet this requirement, a mobile service will be suspended by the operator.

Officials said 13 million pre-paid cards are used in Romania and, apart from terrorism; they can be used in a wide range of illegal activities.

"They are often used in deploying activities that are specific to organised crime, especially trans-border ones, such as smuggling, drug and human trafficking or other activities that can become threats to our national security," George Maior, director of Romania's domestic intelligence service known as SRI, told Evenimentul Zilei.

Moreover, about 70 percent of false alarms reported to the European unique emergency number 112 are phone calls made from pre-paid cars users.

Nine Romanian NGOs issued a public statement warning the public that the law encroaches upon the constitutional right to privacy. They said that the law was rushed through parliament without consultation with civil society or prior public debate, and called on President Traian Basescu not to support it. Similarly, the ombudsman challenged the law at the country's constitutional court.

The law is useless because there are many other measures someone can use to elude the law even if their SIM is registered, said Bogdan Manolea, executive director of the Association for Technology and the Internet in Bucharest.

"One can buy a pre-paid card from someone else or can dial 112 using an expired SIM that allows you to make emergency calls. This is why we believe this measure is excessive and encroaches upon the right to privacy," Manolea told SETimes.

Blogger Alina Gorghiu, a liberal MP, said the law has the potential to overturn the assumption of innocence and turn all users into crime suspects.

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"The law paves the way to abuses on the part of the state, since it does not clearly mention either the context in which the collected data can be used or the period of time for which it can be stored," she said.

Blogger Mihai Hristea said the communications environment sees people committing illegal acts behind the use of the SIM cards.

"These are the ones the law used to protect, not the good-faith users. If you do not have the courage to disclose your identity and thus assume your own deeds and words, there are high chances to develop a tendency to do all sorts of scams behind this anonymity," he said.

What can the authorities do to reduce security vulnerability in pre-paid SIM card use? Share your opinion in the comments section.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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