Tourist SIM-tracking plan axed

Tourist SIM-tracking plan axed

Economic, privacy concerns triumph

A foreign tourist looks at his mobile phone while walking along Silom Road in Bangkok. (File photo by Tanaphon Ongarttrakoon)
A foreign tourist looks at his mobile phone while walking along Silom Road in Bangkok. (File photo by Tanaphon Ongarttrakoon)

Plans for special SIM cards for tourists have finally been scrapped by the national telecom regulator after facing strong opposition from the government, which says the idea would do more harm than good.

The plan also drew heavy criticism at the first public hearing from participants who said it could lead to a potential threat to travellers' privacy.

The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) initially approved in principle a requirement that foreign visitors to Thailand use special SIM cards in their phones that could be tracked by the authorities in the interest of national security.

The NBTC planned to force all mobile operators to embed location-based service software into their SIM cards to enable them to track the call history of the user in the event he or she became a criminal suspect.

Operators would be required to sell the special SIM cards to foreign travellers wanting to use local mobile services.

The regulator expected to roll out the special SIM cards in early 2017.

The initiative was originated at a regional-level meeting in Phuket in July last year, gathering telecom regulators from the 10 Asean countries. Among the 10, only Malaysia uses special traceable SIM cards for foreign travellers.

"We have stopped all related processes [including public hearings] for the tourist SIM card plan," said NBTC secretary-general Takorn Tantasith.

The NBTC earlier prepared to invite embassy representatives and ambassadors from China, the US, Britain and some European countries -- all of which provide high tourist traffic to Thailand -- to take part in a public hearing on the tourist SIMs.

Mr Takorn said the government, especially the Tourism and Sports Ministry, is concerned that the tourist SIM would cause severe damage to the local tourism industry -- a critical component of the country's economic growth, contributing 17% of the GDP.

The ministry reported that 19.06 million foreign tourists visited Thailand in the first half of 2016, an increase of 12% year-on-year.

An executive at a major mobile company who asked not to be named said the termination of the tourist SIM plan was for the good of the country.

Though the cost of requiring traceable SIM cards would create a small burden to mobile operators, the source said it might make foreign travellers unhappy or uncomfortable with the way local authorities handle personal information.

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