Cellphone Terrorism

My old colleague Nick Cumming-Bruce writes in today’s IHT on Thailand’s demand that prepaid cellphone users register before they get a SIM card as police continue on the trail of cellphone terrorists.

Interesting piece: the basic idea is that you must hand over your name and address before getting a phone number as a measure to deter terrorists, who have been shown in Thailand and elsewhere to use phones to organise attacks and trigger bombs. Roaming customers visiting Thailand may also have to register.

But how effective is this going to be? First off, I think the practice of prepaid registration is more widespread than this. When I was in Australia last year I had to submit to questioning over the phone by a network employee, who disarmingly assessed whether I was who I said I was before he activated the card.

The other thing is that there’s no way this kind of thing would work except in places where the cost of a prepaid card is high enough to deter fraud, and even then it probably wouldn’t. In a place like Indonesia — where cellphones have been widely used by terrorists to plan, coordinate and trigger attacks — people buy SIM cards for as little as $2; what’s to stop a thriving gray or black market of these cards appearing, as folk offer themselves as registrants. Needless to say, there are 100 reasons why people don’t want others to know — especially, but not only the government — what number they’re using, and they may have nothing to do with blowing things up.

Wrong solution to a problem, I think. If you really wanted to do this properly, I would go for the credit card solution: Use software to track usage patterns and look for unusual behaviour. Cellphone data must be massive but it must also reveal all sorts of interesting data that is not necessarily personally intrusive: where someone is, how they use their phone — voice, SMS, MMS, GPRS — and how often they use it. Monitoring this kind of data would take some time, but it might reveal patterns of usage that expose terrorist-like behaviour.

Terrorists, for example, tend to keep a phone for just certain calls, so usage is very low. Of course, that also describes grandmothers given a phone for emergencies, but coupled with location data — terrorists tend to move around quite a lot — and other data might offer some revealing glimpses.

Maybe this is already being done. For sure, security agencies must have been mining the historical data of phones used by captured terrorists: Interesting patterns may be contained therein. But my tupennies’ worth is that by forcing folk to register their SIM cards is not going to deter terrorists: It’s just going to force them to use a more clandestine channel. Much better to keep them in the open and find a better way of looking for clues there.

02. May 2005 by jeremy
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