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Privacy Rights and Prepaid Communication Services

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Simon Fraser University




This research report is a survey of policies regarding the regulation of prepaid mobile phone services in OECD countries. The intent was to contribute to an evidence-based policy deliberation on the issue of privacy rights and prepaid communications services in Canada and elsewhere by examining the policy positions and experiences of the countries surveyed. As the report is intended to provide empirical evidence for informed decision-making on this subject, there are no specific recommendations on how Canada or other countries should proceed on this issue.

Prepaid mobile phone services are typically purchased by a customer who buys a mobile handset and airtime credit and then obtains additional airtime credit vouchers or buys stored value cards with cash, debit or credit card transactions. In some countries individuals can obtain pre-paid services in a completely anonymous manner without having to furnish any user identification. Due to increasing concerns about the use of anonymous prepaid phone services for criminal and terrorist activities, several countries have introduced regulations requiring mobile phone operators to collect customer information for prepaid services:

The report states that, while Canada does not have such regulations in place, the possibility of this occurring in future ought to be a matter of interest to the Privacy Commissioner because the legal and ethical implications remain uncertain. Public debate has been encumbered by a lack of information about what objectives such a requirement might realistically seek to achieve or how it might be implemented and enforced.

The report helps address this question by presenting findings from a survey of OECD countries on questions that include government policy, industry concerns and other evidence on the use and abuse of prepaid services, as well as forums and opportunities for public debate of the issue. Research was conducted between April and October 2005, relying on numerous published sources of information as well as questionnaires sent to data protection authorities and other agencies in OECD countries. Information, at varying levels of detail, was obtained from about 25 of the 30 OECD countries, as well as from South Africa.

The report contains a detailed country-by-country summary of each country’s positions on prepaid communications services registration. Among countries surveyed, the profiles on Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, the Slovak Republic, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States include the most detailed discussion and analysis of the country’s position on the issue, the reasons for and against registration, the specifics of regulation, the marketplace response and logistical issues.

The report includes some summary comments on the justification for and against prepaid registration, the feasibility of implementing and enforcing regulatory measures, and possible uses of alternative measures.

The report suggests a test of “reasonable appropriateness” is required in considering the collection of subscriber information for prepaid mobile communications, and proposes that this question could be settled in one of three ways: by producing empirical evidence to show that registration has a deterrent effect on crime and terrorism; by making a politically and socially acceptable case for prepaid phone registration based on the interpretation of existing legislative authority; or through an efficiency argument that claims that such regulation will improve the efficiency of law enforcement and public safety.

This document is available in the following language(s):

English only

  • This project is not available online. Please contact the funded research organization for more information.

OPC Funded Project

This project received funding support through the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s Contributions Program. The opinions expressed in the summary and report(s) are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Summaries have been provided by the project authors. Please note that the projects appear in their language of origin.

Contact Information

Simon Fraser University
8888 University Drive
Burnaby, B.C.
Canada. V5A 1S6

Tel: (778) 782-3111
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