Recent concerns over the use of technology by terrorists has prompted a crusade in the government against encryption, but a bill introduced by California Representative Jackie Speier looks to close a different loophole. The bill, if passed, would require retailers to get identification from anyone who buys a so-called “burner” phone. Spier claims unregistered burner phones represent a significant gap in law enforcement’s ability to investigate terrorism, drugs, and human trafficking.
In this context, we’re not only talking about the cheap burner phones you see in movies. The legislation also covers prepaid smartphones and SIM cards. Right now, it’s possible to buy a prepaid phone for cash, then load up on airtime without ever using a credit card or showing an ID. The bill would require anyone purchasing such a product to provide identification. If you’ve tried to purchase a decongestant with pseudoephedrine in the last decade, the process will probably be similar.
Suitable forms of identification for purchasing a prepaid burner would include a federal or state ID, a W-2 tax statement, a form 1099, or any other official document deemed acceptable by law enforcement. The end result is that buying a burner would mean your name, address, and birth date would be entered into a database. This is something law enforcement certainly wants, and it’s hard to deny that it would make investigating crime easier. For example, the terrorists who perpetrated the recent attacks in Paris used burner phones, not encryption to plan their attacks. However, this bill is based on the assumption that a significant portion of burner phones are sold to criminals. In reality, that’s just not the case.
The scope of this bill, as previously mentioned, is wider than those $ 10 flip phones you can get at drug stores. All those SIM cards and budget-oriented phones sold on prepaid carriers are included in the proposed crackdown. The lower price of the devices and service means it’s mainly poor people buying these phones, not criminals. These are also the people who are most likely to lack the identification that would be needed to purchase burner devices under the proposed law.
Opponents of the bill, which was filed on March 23rd, also cite the seeming futility of restricting pre-paid burner purchases. There are numerous other ways for criminals to protect their identities, including virtual burner phone apps, stolen phones, and myriad encrypted communication services that would continue to operate even if the government banned them. Not to mention, anyone with a fraudulent or stolen ID could purchase a burner phone that is essentially untraceable.
The bill hasn’t yet been passed out of the House Judiciary Committee, but it’s only been a few days. This is the sort of thing that could progress quickly if members of Congress suddenly feel the need to show they are tough on terrorism.