A tech businesses lobby group has criticized interior ministry plans to ban pre-paid Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards, saying that this would have no impact on crime figures, but would have negative consequences for those who rely on such products.
Pre-paid SIM cards are available in kiosks and other stores from several suppliers in Estonia; unlike a contract SIM obtained from one of the major telecoms firms, purchasing a pre-paid SIM has no ID requirement, meaning it can be done anonymously.
In a communique to Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets (SDE), the Estonian Association of Information Technology and Telecommunications (ITL) says that making SIM cards ID-linked-only would spell the end of a product used by the state for the consumption of a vital service, but without any effect on reducing crime.
"The era of roaming, social apps and encrypted messaging offers easy alternatives to anonymous communication," the ITL found.
The ITL referenced a study by the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences (Sisekaitseakadeemia) which states that no data can be found worldwide in support of the argument that making SIM cards ID-linked has been or would be more effective in the fight against global crime and terrorism.
In any case, if non-personalized SIM cards were banned in Estonia but not in neighboring Latvia or Finland, where they are currently legal, not only would this business be lost to domestic traders, but also the use of foreign-issued SIMs would in fact complicate the investigation of potential crimes further.
"The use of foreign calling cards would mean the investigation of crimes becoming more difficult, as data on the purchase, charging and use of SIM cards would no longer be available from Estonian operators. In the case of roaming calls, these travel via the 'home country,' so Estonian operators do not receive this data either," the ITL reported.
Around 150,000 people use such prepaid or non-personalized SIM cards in Estonia and since most retailers do not utilize means of identification, their number may dwindle significantly if a ban were imposed, the ITL says.
The ban would also be a blow to those who use such SIM cards for "legitimate" reasons, such as for safety purposes in the case of those trapped in abusive relationships.
Moreover, the actual purpose individuals might use pre-paid or non-personalized SIM cards is not the state's business in any case, critics of the ban argue.
Veiko Kommusaar, undersecretary at the ministry, with the responsibility of internal security, says that a large proportion of fraudulent or otherwise nefarious phone calls are made using non-ID-linked SIM cards, for instance in the case of criminals who regularly change both SIM and "burner" phone, in an effort to evade detection.
Critics of the bill, currently under preparation at the ministry, say that things have moved on from a time when such behavior was depicted in popular TV shows some years ago and that criminals will and already do use alternative means of communication.
Calls for a ban in prepaid SIM cards, too, is not a new idea; both the interior ministry and the economic affairs and communications ministry proposed doing so three years ago.
Controversy at the time also hinged on the need to fight crime versus privacy considerations; the-then Center-EKRE-Isamaa coalition shelved the plans, saying that further analysis was needed.
Other drawbacks of pre-paid SIMs cards include a lack of features, support, coverage and speeds than contract-based services, and the possibility of running out of credit at a critical moment.
Other advantages include almost the corollary of the above, ie. not being hit with an unexpectedly hefty bill at month's-end.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Marko Tooming