Opinion: Tracking tourists for ‘national security’

PHUKET: An online forum recently published an article titled ‘NBTC to propose special SIM cards for foreign tourists so they can be traced’. The article states that the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) intends to introduce ‘special’ SIM cards for mobile users, in order to ‘track’ foreigners while they are staying in Thailand.

The news is worrying on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin. It goes without saying that this is an unprecedented invasion of privacy, so I won’t dwell on that too much. However, the NBTC secretary-general is reported to have said what we now hear in justification of so many draconian measures in Thailand, that is that this is a matter of “national security” and should not be viewed as a violation of anyone’s privacy.

Additionally, the ‘traceable’ SIM cards will reportedly not be a requirement for Thai nationals, because “they are required to show their ID cards when they buy SIM cards”, the article states. This one is a head-scratcher for me, because everyone – Thai national or otherwise – is required to show their ID when purchasing a SIM card.

Foreigners, especially, are much more easily ‘traceable’ to begin with, what with our need to show a valid passport, arrival and departure cards and, for tourists, a hotel reservation when entering the country.

However, all of that aside, my biggest concern is how hostile such a move might appear to a visitor. Imagine being a first time visitor and walking up to an airport counter to buy a sim, only to be told that your activities would be monitored for the duration of your stay in the interests of “national security” and order to ensure that you’re not a criminal.

On the flip side, I wonder if foreigners are even going to be informed of this at all.

The proposition also brings up a number of burning questions I’d like answered. For instance, how do they intend to track travellers who use international SIMs with roaming? What about foreigners, such as myself, who purchased their SIM cards long before the introduction of the new ones? Also, if an international criminal element really does enter the country, he or she would probably know enough to make other arrangements anyway.

The idea could have been acceptable to foreigners, at least in theory, if packaged even slightly more diplomatically, but what with this ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach, that doesn’t seem likely either.

— Sahar Aftab Paliwala

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