June 8, 2010

Senators Aim To Crack Down On Anonymous Prepaid Phones

New York Senator Chuck Schumer and Texas Senator John Cornyn have introduced legislation that requires consumers to produce identification before buying prepaid cell phones.

The bill has bipartisan support, along with law enforcement, even though civil liberties groups have raised privacy concerns and some terror experts say it will not deter bad behavior.

Schumer, a Democrat, and Cornyn, a Republican, are hoping to schedule hearings on the bill through the Judiciary Committee.  Schumer has urged Attorney General Eric Holder to help support the measure.

Prepaid phones can help people with limited income or poor credit. Phone companies sold $16 billion worth of prepaid cell phones last year.

However, the phones have been a useful tool for drug dealers, gang members and even white-collar criminals because they can be purchased anonymously.

Such phones have been linked to suspect terrorist activities in recent years as well.  Law enforcement officials said Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American accused of plotting to bomb Times Square, had used a prepaid cell phone to purchase a car to hide the bomb in and communicate with co-conspirators in Pakistan.

Schumer said the Shahzad case, combined with the growing use of prepaid cell phones in criminal cases, had persuaded him that federal regulation was needed.

"If law enforcement has a legitimate need to surveil, let them surveil," Schumer told The Associated Press (AP), adding, "you can make sure privacy is protected."

That is not a view shared by civil liberties groups and other advocates for digital privacy. 

"The Supreme Court has always upheld the principle that you have the right to speak anonymously "” that the decision to identify yourself as a speaker is an aspect of speech itself," Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told AP.

Tien also said that many people regularly swap phones and SIM cards and buy used cell phones, further blurring the identity of the phones' users and owners.

"For a variety of reasons, this doesn't sound like a `get off the ground' kind of idea," he said.

Schumer disagreed and said the identity of prepaid cell purchasers would be kept private by phone companies in the same way the identities of regular cell and landline customers are protected.

No major phone company has objected to the legislation, and some say they fully embrace it.

"We are living in a time when unfortunately our public safety requires small gives by everyone," Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson told AP.

Jack Cloonan, a former FBI special agent and counterterrorism specialist, said the legislation would not prevent terror plotters from gaining access to the communication tools they needed.

"The bottom line is the terrorists, whether they're the Pakistani Taliban or whether they're closely aligned with al-Qaida, use technology to their advantage," Cloonan said. "They try to stay ahead of us and we're always playing catch up."