back to article Pre-paid Chinese users still anonymous despite new law

For the last 12 months it has been illegal to buy a mobile phone in China without presenting ID, but Chinese customers seem as reluctant to be identified as everyone else. Just like Google, the Chinese are concerned about the use of false, or non-existent, identities in the online world. Rumours abound that local versions of …


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  1. Sir Adam-All

    why not ?

    And why shouldn't people have to give their details to get a pre-paid phone ?

    Surely the operators at least would want to know WHO is using THEIR network.

    This whole debate about anonymity astounds me.

    If you aint up to no good - whats the issue ?

    1. Anonymous Coward

      title schmitle

      Sure, the operators would like to know who is using their network, who wouldn't. The question isn't whether the operators to now, its about me not wanting them to know my name. As i see it there is no reason for them to know. I don't think there is a case where this registration helped solve a crime, serious criminals can still get their hand on untraceable phones without a problem.

      I remember compulsory registration being mandated here in Switzerland after it became clear that anonymous SIMs had been used by terrorists. I think the implication was that some swiss phones had been used during attack on the WTC. Those SIMs where most likely found with WMDs in Afghanistan. Too bad Swisscom (and the regulatory agency) bowed to US pressure in that matter.

      my ID might be in the pocket, no reason not to post as anon.

      1. Vincent Ballard

        Re: title schmitle

        There is actually a case where identifying the purchaser of a phone helped to solve a crime: the Madrid 11-M bombings. That was what motivated the Spanish government to require registration of all prepaid phones.

    2. James Micallef Silver badge

      Troll or idiot?

      Sure the operators WANT to know, for marketing etc purposes, but they don't NEED to know. Do you have to present your ID to go to a movie or buy stuff at a supermarket? Certainly not, and if you hand over your ID (in the form of store card, membership etc), it's a voluntary transaction - I give the company my demographics plus details of everything I buy in return for discounts and bonuses.

      Same with governments, they don't NEED to know the owner of every phone, and society isn't going to collapse if they don't have this info. At most a few idiot criminals will get caught. The smart ones will find a way to get an anonymous phone anyway.

    3. Anonymous Coward

      Here's Why

      As a crime fighter, I rely on such phones to keep me abreast of the villain's latest plans without compromising my secret identity.

    4. CarlC


      Firstly I am no campaigner for anonymity, but I do understand where some of the campaigners are coming from.

      I guess if you totally trust the people who have your information now, and who will have it in the future, then you are ok. But if they decide to do 'no good' do you want to be on the recieving end due?

      Now that said, I am a prepay customer so they have all my data anyway.

      1. Disco-Legend-Zeke

        When Sims Are Illegal...

        ...only criminals will have sims.

    5. A J Stiles

      It's not that simple

      In a perfectly fair society, if you had nothing to hide then you would indeed have nothing to fear.

      However, this is *not* a perfectly fair society.

    6. Armando 123


      You have to pay for the service. (Well, someone does, so let's assume you're a big boy and pay your own way through life.) Are you going to show up with cash, on time, every 30 days? Oh, you'll want to use a credit card (which has your name on it). Fine, can you show some ID to prove this you are who you say you are? Because, you know, some people do that sort of thing.

      1. Wokstation

        Armando 123, did you miss...

        Did you miss the bit about this covering pre-pay phones? There's no monthly bill to pay.

      2. A J Stiles

        Pound Notes

        That's not how it works.

        You pay cash for a top-up voucher with a number on it. The vendor doesn't even need to see your phone, let alone know the number. Then you call the top-up hotline and enter the number on the voucher. The most anybody knows is which shop sold the voucher, and there's no saying you were even the same person who bought it.

        No scrap of a paper trail, and that's the way it should be. A less-benign future government could seriously abuse the information that doing it this way obliterates.

  2. Not Fred31

    So, what's your real name?

    So, what's your real name, Mr Adam-All? Not up to no good, are you? Don't tell me you didn't register with your real name simply because nobody on this forum has a good reason for knowing your real name? Up to no good, are ya?

  3. Dazed and Confused

    ID Checks

    Usually the first thing I go on arriving in a new country is to go by a SIM to avoid roaming costs. In most countries they ask for your passport and photocopy the picture page. In India they wanted photos too.

    In the US they wanted to know my details, but as soon as it became obvious that I was an alien the guy on the cart in the mall just put my details down as the address of the mall. So much for ID checks - green backs rule.

    In the UK you see SIM cards in vending machines.

  4. John Rose

    I like the idea of anonymity

    As the article said, operators want the details (particularly where you live) so that they can sell us stuff. Why shouldn't we have the right to buy phones & sim cards anonymously, just as we can buy computers anonymously which we can then use for anonymous communication?

  5. James Micallef Silver badge

    Where you live?

    "the most valuable piece of information about you is where you live (with sex and age coming a low second and third respectively), so it's something the operator wants to know."

    Surely the networks can work out approximately where you live pretty easily by checking which cell tower your phone connects to. Not very accurate but probably good enough for "selling people stuff" demographics. And I believe there is some research showing that age and gender can be estimated by analysis of usage (amount of calls vs amount of SMS, duration and amount of calls, overall usage etc etc)

    In general, no-one's business who I am , why shouldn't I be able to have a phone without anyone knowing who I am? Clearly criminals can obtain anonymous phones very easily, so the ID requirement is just another example of the combination of surveillance state gone wild and marketing desire to hoover up demographic data.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Yeah but...

      When I visited the UK last year I had no trouble buying an O2 3G dongle but when I tried to top it up this year I could only do so with a UK resident credit card (I had to enter a UK post code that matched the address on my credit card bill)

      Fortunately T-Mobile had the best signal for my last visit and the shop just put down the post code I gave them when we checked signal strengths and which did not in fact correspond to where we were staying. I believe I can buy top-ups in a shop if necessary.

      Anyone want a little-used O2 3G dongle?

    2. Sir Adam-All

      Sigh ...

      No, im not up to "no good".

      As i've said, if your NOT up to no good, wheres the issue.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Well, if that's a honest question.

        Consider this: You're convinced you're not up to no good, so by your logic, there's no issue. So just to satisfy our idle curiosity, please share your real name, date of birth, shoe size, place of birth, bank and bank account number(s), most recent tax return, phone number(s), PIN(s) while at it, registration plates of your car(s), dick size, hm, and oh your home address would be nice as well.

        No? Don't see why you should? Then what is wrong with asking for that? Well? As you said yourself, where's the issue? You did imply "if you don't have anything to hide, you don't have anything to fear", did you not?

        We say that reason is a dangerous fallacy. The issue is that information can easily be abused, and handing it over risks (ab)use, so you only hand it over if there's a very good reason to do so. Convenience of the state, just in case, is not a very good reason. So they shouldn't even ask. That's the issue.

    3. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: where you live?

      If anything, it is worse than that.

      As you say, terrorists will presumably use fake IDs to buy their phones, but ... they then probably *don't* use the phones to call "fake terrorists". So the traffic analysis (cell tower accesses, who calls who, SMS records, etc...) that is already legal if you have a warrant is a far more powerful tool for the police than a purchaser-ID database. The latter is not useful for crime-fighting. It is *only* useful for targetting ads.

  6. JakeyC

    Troll-dar activated

    I suspect you're a troll, but I'll say it anyway...

    You might not be up to anything nefarious, but the same argument could be flip-reversed on the mobile operator: if THEY'RE really not going to do anything with my details, then why do THEY need them?

    Whether or not you have "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" is not the point. They're MY details, I'll keep them close to my chest, thanks.

    By the way, I have an interest in the phone number of those commentards whose comments I reply to. I assume you'll have no qualms about handing them over - after all, I can't do anything bad with just your phone number, right? Right?

    I think I may be waiting a long time to get number...

  7. Roger Stenning

    The issue... that sometimes, your details can get into the wild. Can you say News of The World? I don't know about others, but it's nice to know that I can hop into a shop, and buy a bog-standard simple mobile, and be able to make calls on it, just by handing over the requisite amount of cash, without having to hand over identifications papers and whatnot.

    I *do*, by the way, understand the problem of IDing the bad guys, having worked in stop-the-bad-guy side of things in the past. However, the right to have the option to be anonymous is something of an important thing, and if we go down the "ID! NOW!!" route, then we give in to those very people who threaten our way of life, and whom we seek to stop.

    I hate to sound cliché-ish, but I didn't sign on the dotted line to live in a Police State. I doubt any of us did, really and truly.

    However, if you still subscribe to your rather monochrome "If you aint up to no good - whats the issue?" viewpoint after reading the above, then I doubt there's much that could be said to change your mind, and good luck with your very simplistic view of things.

    Oh, and in case you were wondering, I'm using a contract mobile phone, and a pay as you go dongle for my netbook. Not that it matters, really. Google already know who I am, lol!

    No icon on this one, there's no raspberry-blowing smiley here yet!

  8. Ian Ferguson

    Pretty standard practice in China

    For example, you mention that nobody can buy a high-speed train ticket without state ID; this is technically true, but nobody bothers checking that the person who bought the ticket is the person travelling. It's standard tourist practice to ask somebody at the place you're staying to buy your train tickets for you; they'll be happy to for a minimal commission, and you will get a ticket immediately rather than waiting for days for endless red tape.

    I'm pretty sure the same would happen with mobile phone buying. Most Chinese, rather than pointlessly fighting the system, find ways to work around it.

    1. david wilson

      @Roger Stenning

      >>"The issue is that sometimes, your details can get into the wild. Can you say News of The World?"

      Though in that situation, even if it was the case that the greatest risk was number leakage from a mobile phone company rather than a friend or friend-of-a-friend of the celebrity (or *justifiably* famous person) in question, it wouldn't exactly be hard for someone to get a trusted mate or other third party to buy them a phone and SIM card.

      In fact, for /most/ people, that would be protection from illicit intrusion, state, media or other which roughly approximated ID-free purchases, while still leaving it open for the buyer to be found and questioned about the identity of the phone user in the case of an actual valid need, such as the investigation of a serious crime.

      If I was an activist particularly concerned about being under surveillance, even where ID wasn't required for phone or SIM card purchases, I might well still get someone else to buy on my behalf, to reduce the changes of a connection being made.

  9. Graham Wilson

    What about public telephones?

    Public telephones have always been anonymous, so what's the difference?

    Some reasons for ID are obvious but it's very disconcerting that the State needs to ever intensify its surveillance of its citizens. Where will it all end?

    Such levels of surveillance weren't needed in the past and somehow society still survived. The corollary arises from the obvious question: what's happened and/or what's the State done that's so angered certain people to make such levels surveillance now so necessary?

    I wonder how long it will be before a tattooed number on the forearm, embedded RFIDs and on-file DNA samples are compulsory prerequisites for all--citizens, visitors, pets and even dead parrots?

    Mars is a bit cold, where else can I go where I'm free of the State for long enough to have a shit in private?

    A Fourth Reich for anyone? Seems it's just arriving.

  10. PyLETS
    Big Brother

    Buyer and user often different

    About as easy to get around as it is for under 18s to obtain alcohol. Stopping Bob from buying a £10 phone for Alice who gives him £11, and whom he thinks is Eve, can only be prevented if enforcing the rule is likely to cost Bob more than £1 for registering a PAYG phone on behalf of someone else.

    And then there's the question of what Bob does with his old PAYG phone once he buys a new one and can't be bothered to transfer the old number. As far as I'm concerned it's a bit like lending a casual visitor a working but slightly tatty old umbrella if it's raining on their way out the door. Blowed if I could always remember who I'd lent use of a mobile to.

    1. Jim Morrow
      Big Brother

      what about public phones?

      > Public telephones have always been anonymous,

      that's what our overlords would like you to believe. papers citizen!

      > so what's the difference?

      well most public phones don't accept incoming calls. and there are some logistical problems carrying one of these around. as for trying to using one on the train or in a car...

  11. mark l 2 Silver badge


    While one country still allows anonymous sim card purchases then having any country demand ID to 'stop crime' is useless unless countries that demand ID block all pre-paid SIMS from US, UK etc roaming on their networks as criminals can simply buy a prepaid sim from the UK without any ID checks and then use it back home.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Knee-jerkery against the old rule: If you don't need the info, don't keep it.

    Ever get prank-called by the police? Alright, so they wanted someone who gave them my number though I am not him. And after a couple calls and patient explanations I'm in the wrong city and have owned this number for more than a decade, they did stop calling, mostly. I'd rather fob them off on the phone repeatedly than having them lift my number's records and kick in my door at oh-dark-thirty to accuse me of using a false name, either to them or to the phone company. Anyhow.

    "such crimes going unpunished is a price worth paying for a little anonymity"

    Actually, I think that such crimes going unpunished is a sign the police aren't competent, not up to the demands of policing in these times. They're *supposed* to be able to find perps without expecting the perp dropping a convenient ID card first, thanks. And the phone company knows too well already where each currently switched-on phone with a sim of theirs is, thanks.

    So officers will just have to be quick and trace the phone before the call finishes. Modern technology can do that, or at least be made to do that. Now for an efficient police apparatus that can send the nearest PC plod to the last known location within minutes, instead of weeks, at least for sufficiently important cases. The longer the wait, the colder the trail gets. So get on with it already.

    They also ought not need massive databases of everything happening. All they should need is access to the data as it comes in "live", and pick out the bits and bobs they actually need right this moment. They're there to solve crimes, not collect data that might give insight later in crimes that might conceivably have been committed, possibly. A little realism here, some practicality, some feet on the ground and PCs plod in the streets, please.

    The purpose if the police is to keep a lid on crimes and find the perps that did it. Even if we actually could, "pre-crime" would itself be a grave violation of our fundamental freedoms, as that includes --as I've argued before*-- the freedom to err. Thoug that in turn does not imply getting excused from the consequences.

    I'm not willing to give up anonymity because the police can't be arsed to organise themselves beyond their nineteenth century modus operandi. With progressing information and communication technology, they ought to be more respectful of my privacy, not less.

    Thus, governments have no business demanding ID where it isn't really warranted by some direct and obvious need.


  13. Alain

    France has always required an ID check before a SIM could be sold

    Completely wrong. You can buy a prepaid SIM anonymously here, but it comes with an identification form that you have to return filled within 2 weeks with a copy of an ID document, or face your line being cut.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      stupid french forms

      big fucking deal. how is the phone company going to know if it gets a copy of a genuine or fake id document? how can they tell that it relates to whoever bought the sim card or actually uses it? and why would someone who wants to be anonymous or evade surveillance keep the same sim card for more than a day or so anyway?

  14. Charles Manning

    Tin-foil hat wearers

    It always amazes me how all these people yelling for anonymous SIM cards, no national ID etc will still get in their cars with number plates.

    At least your SIM and ID card are reasonably controlled by yourself. Your number plates are completely public.

    Doesn't make much sense to me.

    1. Allan George Dyer Silver badge

      I've been hit by cars several times...

      but I've never been run over by a phone. Understand the difference yet?

      No, not the tin-foil hat, the reflective vest, please.

    2. Anonymous Coward


      > At least your SIM and ID card are reasonably controlled by yourself.

      NO! Are you on really good drugs?

      You have no control whatsoever over a mandatory, government-issued ID card. They decide what's stored on it and the back-end databases, who gets to see that personal data (and why) and when you must show it. Every time you do show an ID card, a record of that can be made and your privacy is invaded. There's no opt out. You don't know who's accessing those records or why or who they are passing them to.

      When I don't want to be under ACPO's ANPR surveillance, I won't use my car, I'll borrow someone else's. Or I'll take the bus or train. There are other options. At least until the time comes when an ID card is needed to get on a train or a bus.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Charles Manning:

      "It always amazes me how all these people yelling for anonymous SIM cards, no national ID etc will still get in their cars with number plates."

      Interesting comparison - have you been following the debate about problems with the state's handling of the vehicle registration data? Did you notice the high level of dissatisfaction with the state's behaviour of selling that information to all and sundry? Did you notice the reports on the way criminal behaviour has adapted to deal with the armchair style of policing the state prefers (relying on cameras and a ticket in the post) - to whit the rise in the use of false plates?

      So whilst people originally accepted a need for the state to require vehicles to be registered to keepers in order to carry out (and police) a reasonable set of state activities (that benefited the society being managed by the state); the state went on to abuse the trust that had been placed in them (so they could raise a few quid). Do you see why people might be reticent about allowing the state (or anyone else) adding their name and details to another database, which they might later decide to flog to anybody willing to pay them?

      As to the law enforcement side of it - the argument that it is _necessary_ seems very weak. If a mobile number is associated with a crime then I believe the police are likely to have an ability to find out who owns that phone - using something called 'detective work'. For the average citizen (including the average villain) consider all the people you might have called using your phone (and then all the people they might have phoned). Using records of phone numbers called (obtained by warrant) the police can explore this network to find identifiable people; they can interview these people to identify owners of numbers (effectively tracing back through the network of numbers) and bingo. Now people who are determined to remain anonymous (as a group) could try and operate a closed network - but that is not as easy as it seems and there are other techniques that can be used to discover the people in such a network: generally it would be easier to acquire sims using false ID in the first place (so for very serious villains the police would have problems whichever position is taken on requiring ID for sims).

      So if the state can discover who owns numbers why not require registration? It is a matter of checks, balances and auditable trails. Where detective work is needed the state is not going to seek out owners on 'a whim', and they will not have a 'floggable' database. The state will only interfere with the citizens privacy when the state believes it has strong cause to do so. In my opinion this is how it should be. Unfortunately this seems to be at odds with the state's move to armchair policing.

  15. json

    the Philippines..

    .. you can get a prepaid SIM card anywhere, no questions asked.

  16. James Woods


    Reminds me of a sirius satellite radio I attempted to buy at bestbuy. In order to check-out they wanted my name, address, and phone number. This wasn't to activate the sirius service but rather something for bestbuy.

    The associate couldn't tell me what the information was being requested for and also couldn't complete the sale without it.

    Having worked in retail many moons ago when a customer was un-easy about providing their information for warranty purposes we would simply use the customers name with the stores phone number and address.

    Bestbuy doesn't seem to be interested in doing that and instead loses business or collects customer data with it.

    They lost my business that day, I went to walmart and bought one where my information wasn't requested.

    I did however return it after sirius wanted a fee to start service (a fee not disclosed anywhere) but all in all +1 for walmart -1 for bestbuy.

  17. Kibble

    @ Charles Manning

    I take public transportation and pay for my bus/metro rail pass with cash from my employer. I can even purchase my pass from the bus line offices without ID and in cash, but get a discount from my employer. Don't own a private vehicle. Is that a problem?

  18. JaitcH

    Suth-East Asia: SIM ID's

    I am currently in China and there is absolutely no problem is getting a SIM. I went to a China Telecom's place, took out my old SIM and waived it at the woman and pushed some money across the desk and the deed was done. She didn't speak English and I pretended not to know Chinese!

    In VietNam you are required to show your visa to get a SIM from a store. The hotels also have a supply, obtained by using guests passports without their knowledge. All previous unknown SIM users lost service, earlier, until info was supplied.

    In Cambodia no Foreigners are supposed to have cell service. No problem - ask any hotel and they will get you connected within 5 minutes.

    In Laos, same as VietNam.

    All three Indochina countries have 3G, some patches of 4G and radio streaming multi-channel TV everywhere!

  19. Christian Berger Silver badge

    Some points

    @Charles Manning: A car is a dangerous object, you can actually hurt someone badly with a car. You cannot do as much with an internet connection.

    Also in Germany pre-paid providers are forced to record an address. However they are not forced to check it. So budget providers don't do so.

  20. NomNomNom

    what the

    this is typical why should I have to register my name with the chinese government if i want to own a mobile? last time I checked on my password it says i am an english citizen not a chinese communist. right so if I dont register my name with the chinese in protest does that just mean i brake laws in china and my phone wont work in China or does it mean i cant even have a phone? wheres cameron? i notice he so quickly sends off our troops to fight in libia and afghanistan all the time but where is he when this real attack on our freedom has happened?

    gonna love the egg on their faces when angry people riot in vodafone shops up and down the country after they are forced to convert their names to chinese hyrogliphs and asking why they have to do something so ridiculous.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      What the, what the!

      That's odd, I've felt the same way for years about UK government collecting data on Irish citizens, intercepting calls, etc

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