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Anonymous pay-as-you-go SIM cards enabling drug trafficking and other crimes

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Police are calling for pay-as-you-go mobile customers to be forced to register their personal details when purchasing a SIM card in order to help tackle crime.

A report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) found that pay-as-you-go SIMs were often used by drug dealers and other criminals to conduct their business anonymously.

It said this type of user typically keeps a list of their customers' contact details and can simply transfer them to a new phone and SIM number when necessary.

The report noted that identification is needed to open bank accounts in order to make it more difficult for criminals to launder money or commit fraud and these same protections should be extended to pay-as-you-go SIM cards.

It also warned that drug dealers are increasingly likely to use social media for communicating with customers, but the heavy encryption on some of these platforms can make it difficult for police to crack down on illegal activities.

This tallies with comments made by Priti Patel upon her appointment as home secretary in July 2019, when she said platforms such as Whatsapp should have backdoors that allow government to monitor conversations in order to tackle terrorism and child abuse.

The report recommends the Home Office carry out a review of the criminal abuse of mobile phones which should “explore” the regulations of the communications industry.

“The present arrangements that enable criminality by allowing the anonymous acquisition of phones and numbers should be re-examined,” it said.

Former detective Mark Powell, one of the HMIC inspectors who worked on the report, told reporters the “impression” from officers they spoke to was that restrictions on buying phones anonymously would be “welcome”.

He said: “Officers have to resort to lengthy investigations to try to prove who had a phone. But clearly there’s a wider debate to be had.

“We are not saying anonymity should no longer be available to everybody, but we are saying there needs to be a review of the criminal abuse of mobile phones”, adding that this should look at whether regulations need “strengthening”, although this was “not the end of pay-as-you-go”.

Sir Thomas Winsor, chief inspector of constabulary, said: “People regard their communications as a species of privacy that should not be intruded into. That’s why we say the matter should be considered.”

There was “little support” among officers for the use of court orders which block phones and numbers suspected of being used for drug dealing because dealers “obtain replacement phones and numbers quickly and anonymously”.

In one instance, officers told inspectors a drug gang received and shared a new phone number within an hour of the service provider acting on an order.

A dedicated team proposed by the National Crime Agency to co-ordinate the use of such orders should be set up while the review is carried out, the report added.

The Home Office said it is considering the report’s recommendations and the use of court orders to block mobile phones involved in drug dealing is being reviewed.

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