The Home Office insisted today it had taken no decision on whether to force Britons to present photo ID when they buy a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) mobile phone.
However, it confirmed it does plan to "consult" on the issue in the hope of
forcing building a "consensus", despite immediate opposition to the plan from the world's biggest mobile mobile operator outside China.
The Times reported at the weekend that anyone who buys a mobile telephone may in future be forced to register their identity. It said that phone buyers would have to present a passport or other official form of identification at the point of purchase.
The Home Office's exact position on this issue was given by a spokesperson today. He said: "The communications revolution has been rapid in this country and because of changes in technology the way in which we collect communications data needs to change too. If it does not we will lose this vital capability that we currently have and that we all take for granted in fighting and solving crime.
"Of course there is a balance between privacy and our liberty which is why we have said we will be consulting on this and seeking a political consensus. No decisions have been taken and we will be consulting in the New Year."
It's the same line on the forthcoming Communications Data Bill given in a speech by Jacqui Smith last week. In plain English, it's half justification for the new überdatabase, and half a slightly weasely way of pointing out that nothing is yet set in stone. It certainly does not rule out any cunning schemes being hatched in the squeaky clean non-smoky (since summer 2007) backrooms of the Home Office.
A Vodafone spokeswoman was more forthright. She said:
Vodafone does not support mandatory registration for its pre-pay customers and has not made any 'contingency plans' to start requiring registration for the purposes of a Government data collection scheme.
PAYG services hold an important role in terms of preventing a digital divide in communications. There is no need for a credit check and if customers do not have a permanent base, or a passport, they are not excluded from using these services.
The rationale for this move is one familiar to fans of Spooks. Your average terrorist villain is well aware that before indulging in any skullduggery, the correct procedure is to buy a PAYG mobile, pass it to your contact (in a plain brown envelope), who will then use it to make one phone call, before disposing of it in the nearest bin.
But requiring PAYG users to register their use of phones would not of course put a stop to that sort of thing, as would-be terrorists can always bring in phones from abroad or steal mobiles to order. Pointing out such loopholes could count as giving away info that could assist a terrorist, so we won't (See s.58 of the Terror Act 2000).
In fact, the government might argue that it is only following the model already adopted in countries as various as Norway, France, Russia, Spain and – allegedly – the USA. However, this ignores cultural differences and the fact that legislation designed to make us safer has a nasty habit of spawning ever more draconian measures to fill in the loopholes.
Two immediate flaws that spring to mind are the fact that to make such a scheme work, yet more pressure would be placed on all UK citizens to possess a passport or some other form of ID. And to stop criminals abusing the scheme people selling phones in shops would need to be security-vetted.
As for placing PAYG details on the überdatabase, it's consistent with plugging every last communications loophole. So, really, we should not be surprised if the government does eventually propose this measure.
For now can rest easy with the Home Office fervent declaration it "has no plans" – and trust that they won't suddenly discover such plans hidden in the back of a cupboard over the Christmas period. ®