New Bill Aims to Stop Terrorists by Requiring ID to Purchase a Prepaid Phone

April 4, 2016 | Elizabeth Knowles

Woman in a crowd, talking on a cell phone
Photo credit: Chris Hunkeler/flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A safety precaution or a privacy violation?

There are many reasons why people buy prepaid phones: because they can’t afford or don’t want a recurring plan, journalists or abuse victims who don’t want to be tracked, and as movies and TV shows will remind us — criminals.

House Representative Jackie Speier from San Francisco/San Mateo has put forth a bill requiring anyone wishing to buy a prepaid phone to present a piece of ID so that their identity can be tracked. The bill, Closing the Pre-Paid Mobile Device Security Gap Act of 2016, aims to make burner phones less appealing to people planning to use them in the course of breaking the law.

“‘Burner phones’ are pre-paid phones that terrorists, human traffickers, and narcotics dealers often use to avoid scrutiny by law enforcement because they can be purchased without identification and record-keeping requirements. This bill would close that legal gap,” according to a press release.

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Tracking the identity of people buying phones isn’t new. When buying a traditional phone with a contract, you provide information like your name and address that law enforcement can access with a warrant.

Because of the way the bill is written, it would require vendors to keep personal information like name, address, and date of birth for 18 months, but does not specify privacy or security requirements about how they should be stored or transmitted — a worrisome prospect.

Under this bill, anyone attempting to make a purchase using false information would be imprisoned for up to 5 years or, if their case involved terrorism, up to 8 years. Unauthorised sale, on the other hand, would only lead to two years imprisonment.

There is no doubt that the more information the authorities have, the more effective they are at fighting crime, but at what cost to personal safety and information protection? Speier emphasizes that burner phones were used in the 9/11, Paris, and Times Square terrorist attacks. But are these three cases enough to warrant this bill in its current shape?

Since these are terrorists we’re talking about, I predict that a black market would emerge, making the bill moot and simply troublesome for the previously mentioned reasons.

We’ll have to wait and see whether the bill makes it past Congress and the president to become law. Only time will tell.

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