Why do ‘Bart Simpson’ and ‘Monkey D. Luffy’ have registered SIM cards in the Philippines?

Protesters have warned that the mandatory SIM registration will undermine privacy and the people's right to information.

Protesters have warned that the mandatory SIM registration will undermine privacy and people's right to information. Photo from the Twitter post of #JunkSIMreg Network

The TV characters Bart Simpson from the cartoon series “The Simpsons” and Monkey D. Luffy from the anime show “One Piece” are two of the latest “citizens” to register SIM cards in the Philippines after the passage of the Mandatory SIM Registration Act. The Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC) registered the cartoon images and fake IDs to demonstrate how scammers are able to continue their illegal operations despite the new regulations.

The law was passed in October 2022, requiring all cell phone users and foreign visitors to register their SIM cards as a protective measure against phone-related crimes. Authorities insisted the registration would end text spamming, phone scams, and other unsolicited messages. On the other hand, stakeholders who opposed the law have warned that mandatory registration will simply create a black market for the selling of registered SIM cards and could also be a tool for mass surveillance.

A petition filed before the Supreme Court contends that the law “tramples upon zones of privacy and sweeps away all protections guaranteed by the Constitution against unreasonable searches and seizures.” An excerpt of the petition says:

All accounts that rely on OTPs (One Time Password); all communications through cellular networks; all conversations between husbands and wives, lawyers and clients, doctors and patients, priests and penitents, journalists and sources — all these become fair game to law enforcement agencies’ on-demand fishing expedition enabled by the SIM Registration Act.

As of September 3, almost 119 million SIM cards have been registered already in the Philippines. This is higher than the country’s population of 110 million. One legislator suspects that phone users could be registering multiple SIM cards, which is not illegal, but some of these excess registrations could be related to criminal operations.

Indeed, authorities have conducted several raids and confiscated tens of thousands of pre-registered SIM cards. In one raid alone, police found 28,000 registered cards. This may explain the continuing proliferation of text-based scams. On September 5, the National Telecommunications Commission reported that it had already received more than 45,000 complaints about text scams and phone scams after the passage of the SIM registration law.

Some have posted screenshots of these spam messages on social media.

Here’s another screenshot showing an attempt to lure a user into clicking a dubious link.

Even the Department of Information and Communications Technology Secretary Ivan John Uy has admitted to receiving spam messages on a daily basis. When asked about this by the media, he said the scammers had adopted various new ways to target users.

…our legislators came up with the SIM card registration to cut off this mode. It does not mean that the criminals have no other modes of conducting their scam.

He acknowledged the illegal purchasing of registered SIM cards, the manufacturing of fake identity papers, and the role of social media in extracting information about cell phone users are all at play.

These issues were also discussed in a Senate hearing, which looked into the implementation of the law. The National Bureau of Investigation shared that it was able to register an ID showing the image of a smiling monkey.

A week later, the PAOCC registered SIM cards for Bart Simpson and Monkey D. Luffy.

LOOK: Blunder of telecommunication companies exposed; ID with photo of cartoon character Bart Simpson and Anime character Monkey D. Luffy, used during SIM registration.

Senator Win Gatchalian, one of the proponents of the law, was furious:

There should be at least some form of validation so we can establish who is accountable for that post-validation. We cannot allow horses, monkeys, and gorillas to be registered. We have to do something. If we are not going to do something, this will happen over and over again.

Another author of the law, Senator Grace Poe, wanted to amend the rules to include a live selfie as a requirement for SIM registration. She also dismissed calls for the suspension of the law.

The problem is not with the SIM Registration law, it's in the enforcement.

The law has enough teeth against fraudsters as well as safeguards to privacy of our people.

Concerned agencies and telcos must be able to plug the loopholes in their effective implementation without halting registration.

Backing down against scammers is not an option.

Meanwhile, some legislators are calling for stiffer penalties and the charging of fees for multiple SIM card registrations. Digital rights advocate Tonyo Cruz urged authorities to focus instead on running after fraudsters:

Authorities should not hinder legitimate use through arbitrary limitations or the charging of unnecessary fees. They should instead run after and prosecute to the full extent of the law the syndicates who have been found to be not just in possession of tens of thousands of SIM cards, but that these were likewise used for e-money and online bank transactions.

Digital rights activists cautioned lawmakers about the introduction of additional rules that would further violate the privacy and civil liberties of individuals.

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