The Supreme Court had declined to restrain, even temporarily, the registration of mobile phone SIM cards as required by law. But while it exercised judicial restraint on the matter, its action was mooted by the Executive’s decision to extend the registration deadline by three months. A deadline previously set by law.

The extension considered estimates by the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) that some 15 million to 20 million SIM cards already issued have yet to be registered. To date, roughly 82 million SIM card owners have complied with the registration requirement that was initiated more than four months ago.

Many failed to complete the registration process, lacking government-issued identification, or lacking internet access, or simply refusing to register for one reason or the other. Extending the deadline was perhaps the right decision. Public clamor for more time was addressed, while the Supreme Court is also given more time to resolve questions on the constitutionality of the SIM registration law.

Moving forward, however, my concern is this. If, for the sake of discussion, the Supreme Court finds reason and justification to nullify the SIM registration law and to invalidate the required registration, then what happens to all the registration data so far collected? How will the 82 million registered SIM users be affected?

The crux of the matter is the right to privacy, according to the petitioner against the SIM registration law. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, in its petition, wants the Court to stop the government and telecommunication companies from “using, storing, transferring, and processing all information gathered” during SIM registration and to get rid of all information already received.

The group claimed that requiring SIM registration violated the freedom of speech and was a violation of the right to privacy of communication, among others. I will not debate the merits of the petition and leave it to legal experts to discuss. Early resolution by the Court, perhaps within the 90-day extension period, will be best for all.

If the petitioners against SIM registration are the same petitioners against the use of a National ID, then I laud them for their consistency. On the other hand, to those who agreed to apply for a national ID but oppose SIM registration, I believe they should clarify themselves as to why one is acceptable as opposed to the other.

The data required for SIM registration is simple information that is already available in most government databases. These include full name, date of birth, gender, and home address. When using a photo ID to register, then the process captures an image or photo as well. The difference is that one’s personal information is now linked to a SIM serial number and a mobile number.

Is this difference enough to consider the SIM registration law unconstitutional? Does it constitute a form of “prior restraint” particularly on media persons from exercising their profession? Does it pose an obstacle, hindrance, or any form of restraint on the right to free speech and expression? Does it impinge on the freedom of the press? Does it violate the right to privacy? If one is not a media practitioner, or in the political opposition, should the issue matter at all? These questions as well as others raised by the petitioners require urgent resolution by the Court.

In this line, the 90-day extension was a master stroke. People get more time to decide on how to move forward on their SIM registration. The Court also gets more time to deliberate on the case. And the Executive doesn’t find itself butting heads meantime with journalists against SIM registration. It also pushes the deadline — and the controversy — past the congressional Easter break. Congress, if need be, can act on the matter after the opening in end-July.

The Court’s refusal to issue a temporary restraining order is indicative of its inclination on the matter, in my opinion. Moreover, if it views SIM registration as nothing more than collection of readily available personal data, then I also believe the SIM registration law will not be nullified. It is really a question of whether linking that personal data directly with the use of a mobile communication device can be considered a violation of any constitutional right.

On whether or not the collection of personal data during SIM registration is constitutional, I believe this will be upheld. After all, the same personal data and biometrics are collected during the processing and issuance of a National ID, or a driving license, or a passport, or any other government-issued identification.

As to linking such personal data to the ownership and use of a property like a mobile phone, again, I believe this can be justified. The same applies to those who register their ownership of real property or motor vehicles or firearms, among others. Even media entities go through some form of identification and registration of companies, properties, and vehicles used in their conduct of the business of media and in the practice of the media profession.

In a newspaper column in 2020, former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban noted that the national ID law would “easily pass constitutional challenge because of the simplicity of the required personal data.” After all, “these simple personal data are already publicly disclosed in drivers’ licenses, passports, senior ID cards as well as in ID cards issued by the Social Security System (SSS) and the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS).” I believe this reflection will also have some bearing on the present case.

But as I argued in a column last December, I noted that the SIM registration database – matching names with pictures and mobile numbers as well as other personal information – will be another “digital footprint” that can be hacked, and the information possibly misused. And the Data Privacy Act is simply no match to those who intend to do harm. Moreover, whether such information can be used against journalists is anybody’s guess. It will depend largely on the fortitude of telecommunication companies to resist government attempts to unduly access such data.

Then couple this with the ability to track phones and their owners through GPS and cell sites, and match this with face-recognition software employed through public and private CCTV networks, then “Big Brother” is now more a reality than fiction. But “Big Brother” may no longer be the government watching us, but it is that network of computers and mobile phones and other electronic devices that develop, capture, and analyze digital footprints and allow those with legal and illegal access to our information to better understand us and to make “informed” decisions about how to either serve us, or steal from us.

In this line, if the SIM registration is deemed illegal by the Court, then purging all data collected should be the end of the issue. However, if the Court upholds the law, then the big challenge is how policymakers, regulators, and government and industry leaders can sufficiently and effectively protect the public, the government, and businesses from data breach and the illegal or improper use of that data to pursue political or business interests.


Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council