SMS services a victim in the war on terror

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2005, 12:00am

Anonymous SMS text messages are a small window of free speech in Malaysia's tightly controlled society, but that window is set to close this year - a victim of the war on terrorism.

The government has ordered the 14 million anonymous users of prepaid mobile phone services, 3 million of them foreign workers, to register or face disconnection by their service providers. Now, anyone can buy a prepaid package for as little as M$18 ($37) and start sending anonymous messages.

'We want to know the identity of hand-phone owners ... we have to end the anonymity because terrorists are using mobile phones to set off bombs,' said Telecommunication Minister Lim Keng Yaik on Sunday.

Dr Lim said Malaysians would have to produce identity cards and foreigners their passports to obtain a prepaid service.

'The particulars will be recorded by the three telecommunication companies,' he said.

Critics, including opposition legislators, say the real reason for the clampdown is to curtail the spread of political rumours and gossip about VIP sex scandals.

'In the absence of a free press and credible media, people tend to believe in rumours,' said Lim Guan Eng, the secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Action Party. 'Before there was poison pen letters, now it is SMS text messages.'

Many recent mass SMS text messages were wild, unfounded rumours - but they were widely believed. In 2002, villagers in Sabah state in Borneo fled their homes after SMS messages claimed head-hunters were roaming the area.

Since the December 26 tsunami, there has been a rash of bogus tsunami warnings that have caused panic along the coasts.

Police believe thieves use the tsunami ruse to empty villages to plunder homes and steal water buffalo. More recently, two Indonesian workers, angry because they were not paid, sent text messages last month that bombs were to explode on Penang. The messages snowballed causing widespread panic.

Human rights activists say despite the misuse, SMS texting is an important, anonymous way to let off steam. 'Sure it is raucous, but should be permitted in a democracy,' said human rights activist S. Arulchelvam. 'Messaging will drop significantly because people are afraid 'big brother' is watching.'

Telephone companies are reluctant to register clients but have been ordered to comply.

'Terrorists are determined people and can easily forge or steal identity to obtain prepaid service,' one company representative said. 'It is not easy registering 14 million users,' he added. 'Is it worth the effort?

He pointed out that many prepaid users have no fixed addresses or jobs.

'Many are students and some are kids below the legal age ... the database will be unreliable and easily misused.

'There are legal implications over demanding identity from underage users,' he said. 'The government has not thought this out ... it will be a mess.'