July 16, 2020 4 min read
In March of 2016, California Congresswoman Jackie Speier introduced a bill to the House that would require those purchasing prepaid cellular devices to submit their ID's at the time of purchase. In addition, it would require merchants to keep records of those transactions. While the bill didn't get past introduction, it's still important to understand the good and the bad behind the intention of it.
In a press release, the Congresswoman cited the need for this new legislation saying, "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."
So what's the problem with closing a "loophole" that only corner drug dealers, terrorists and the bad guys from Die Hard movies are using? As it turns out, these restrictions wouldn't prevent nefarious characters from communicating at all. It seems like this is nothing more than a restriction on privacy and an attempt to use fear to get legislation passed. Just look at the term "burner phone."
While the term might conjure up images of a sweaty Jason Bourne evading European police, it's not a term exclusive to prepaid phones. A "burner" device is anything you're willing to throw away when you're done with it. In fact, I just tossed a "burner napkin" away at lunch. I can hear the sirens already.
If you're like millions around the country, you probably receive your cell phone bill in some way or another towards the end of the month. It details the amount of data you consumed, as well as text message activity and minutes used. (Is anyone actually worried about going over on their minutes anymore?)
With a prepaid phone, the amount of usage is predetermined and by the very nature of the device, is anonymous. This isn't anything that's been purposefully built in, it's just a by-product of having the device pre-loaded. In reality, one of the only reasons cell phone companies take so much information from you when you sign up for a postpaid device, is to ensure they're able to collect if you stop paying the bill.
To an ordinary, law abiding citizen, it may not seem like that big of an issue to provide an ID at the time of purchasing a prepaid phone, but who's responsibility is it to keep that ID information secure? Will the burden of security fall to the gas station clerk or discount store cashier? Ignoring the argument that a government shouldn't arbitrarily collect data on its citizens, there's a huge potential for identity theft and other security issues.
The fact is, you're not required to provide ID for purchasing other electronic devices like televisions, computers or tablets, so why would only prepaid phones fall into this new category? Proponents of the proposed law would argue that it's because these prepaid phones can provide criminals a method of communication that Law Enforcement is unable to track. Because as we all know, secure communication isn't possible through other means, right?
Any WiFi enabled device has the propensity to be used as a communications tool. There are dozens of encrypted emails and chat services available to anyone with Internet access. Going a step further and using a VPN connection or even an unsecured wireless network means that it's nearly impossible to track communications through these services.
The government is desperately trying to set a precedent for having the ability to break encryption on devices like phones, computers and tablets. By tying encryption and data privacy to things like terrorism, their hope is that we'll bend and agree to allow them access. There are dangers with the "I've got nothing to hide" attitude. You may not see a reason for things like privacy and encryption until it's too late and they've already been taken from you.
Many people continue to ask what the legitimate reason for owning a prepaid phone is, but when it comes down to it, it doesn't matter. In the United States, we shouldn't have to provide reasons for having something. The government should provide valid, solid reasons why people shouldn't own items and in this case, it's attempting to use fear and buzzwords to close off a perceived loophole. Pretty soon, they'll be looking to shut down the "phone show loophole" that will surely develop as private sales of prepaid cellular devices skyrocket.
Sites like Craigslist and eBay are already full of pre-owned devices and requiring ID for these transactions would be near impossible and difficult to enforce. Not to mention stolen devices or devices that have simply had their SIM cards swapped out. Some will defend these devices citing reasons like placing a call to a company without the risk of them selling your personal phone number to telemarketers. Others will tell you they keep a prepaid phone on hand in case their primary phone gets damaged and they need it for emergency use. Whatever the reason people have, no one should need to provide a reason to own devices like this, even if it means they remain anonymous when using them.
As technology improves, communication methods will change. The cat and mouse game will continue as long as those seeking to keep communication private are up against those attempting to capture and view that information. Wherever you stand on issues like data privacy, encryption and providing identifying information for simple purchases, it's important to view these issues from a big picture perspective.
It's the duty of a government to govern its people and provide security to ensure their well being. It is however, not the duty of a government to restrict citizen's right to privacy by requiring them to submit information on devices arbitrarily selected under the guise of fear and security.
In closing, I'll leave you with a quote that's often argued as being misappropriated. Whatever the context, I believe that Benjamin Franklin would agree that his words ring just as true about data privacy and security as they did when he was addressing a tax dispute, "those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."