Frontline police have called for a change in the law to regulate the sale of prepaid mobile phone SIM cards which they say have become the communication tool of choice for criminals.
But their call - which would bring Hong Kong in line with an increasing number of overseas jurisdictions - has been met by a wall of concerns over privacy from lawmakers.
Tony Liu Kit-ming, chairman of the Hong Kong Police Inspectors' Association, which represents1,800 officers, says stricter controls on SIM cards that can be bought over the counter at stores would be a 'great help to the force's investigations'.
'Many criminals use these prepaid SIM cards and it makes our investigations very difficult. If we can get some amendments to the current legislation it would make a big difference to us,' Liu said.
Prepaid SIM cards can be bought for HK$100 or more at convenience stores and there's no requirement to produce the details needed to obtain a SIM card from one of Hong Kong's phone companies, meaning there is no record of who uses it.
Individual criminals or criminal syndicates use the untraceable cards to communicate in the commission of an array of crimes, from simple deception cases to highly organised drug smuggling operations. While the police can find out the numbers called from the SIM card in a seized phone, more often than not the calls are made to other phones with prepaid SIM cards and the trail goes cold.
Liu wants to make it illegal to buy a prepaid card without registering some form of identification at the point of sale: 'It would be a deterrent if we had the authority to have these details on record so we could track criminals down,' Liu said. 'Judging by how effective this has been in other countries, it'd be a great help to the force's investigations.'
Singapore introduced legislation in 2005 regulating the sale of prepaid SIM cards.
Anyone wishing to buy a prepaid SIM card in the city must first present an identity card, permanent residents' card, a foreign worker's work permit identification card or passport, and be registered.
Similar legislation also applies on the mainland and in South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Brunei. Japan, Australia, Germany, France and Switzerland have also enacted legislation to enforce similar prepaid SIM card registration requirements. The Philippines is in the process of introducing such a law.
Hong Kong lawmakers are not enthusiastic about the idea, though.
Democratic Party lawmaker Fred Li Wah-ming sees the merits of legislation, but cautioned against looking for a 'quick fix' for the problem and said there should be a thorough discussion of the matter.
'I do see the credit in this, as it will help prevent crime, but it's about striking a balance between the rights of individuals and improving security measures here,' Li said.
Democratic Party colleague James To Kun-sun had much stronger feelings: 'I can only say that police can keep Hong Kong as a very stable society without the need for legislation like this,' he said.
Civic Act-up lawmaker Cyd Ho Sau-lan said such a move was too intrusive and would not work in Hong Kong.
However, another police officer pointed out that people had to show their Hong Kong ID card and give their personal details often and for more trivial reasons, such as to gain access to an apartment block or estate that they do not live in.
In a statement, the government said that privacy concerns were not the only problem. New legislation might also 'create undesirable hurdles for the [prepaid SIM card] trade'. It would 'monitor the situation'.
Prepaid SIM cards can be bought for this amount or more
Singapore regulated their sale in 2005