Rep. Speier Wants To Register Every Prepaid Phone Purchase, In Case Someone Bad Uses One As A Burner Phone

from the post-Paris-panic-continues dept

First, the legislators came for encrypted phones, because terrorists were apparently using encryption. (Except they weren’t.) Now, they’re coming for prepaid phones. Sure, customers will still be able to buy prepaid phones. They’ll just have to “register” with their local retailer in order to do so.

A bill proposed in congress this week would require that all users provide identification and register prepaid ‘burner’ phones upon purchase.


Representative Jackie Speier, the congresswoman who introduced the bill, called the prepaid phone “loophole” an “egregious gap in our legal framework,” one that allowed terrorists and criminals near-complete autonomy and a means for private, anonymous communications.

This “loophole” has existed for years. There’s nothing new about burner phones. The only thing “new” is that these were used by the terrorists who attacked Paris. So, of course, a legislator has decided to do something about it.

What exactly will be done remains unclear. The bill has yet to arrive in written form. But it has, sight unseen, been referred to three House committees and enjoyed a full-page press release from Rep. Speier.

The Closing the Pre-Paid Mobile Device Security Gap Act of 2016 would place the same identification and record-keeping standards on pre-paid mobile devices as the ones that already exist on traditional contract mobile devices. When customers buy a traditional contract-based phone, they provide basic information such as a name, address, and date of birth, which law enforcement can request with a warrant in order to stop terrorist attacks or other illegal activity.

This bill would direct pre-paid cell phone retailers to collect basic ID information at the time of purchase and share that information with the cellular provider for that individual device. The information would be verified using a credit card, debit card, social security number, driver’s license number, or other information that the Attorney General finds adequate in order to have some record of the transaction. Pre-paid “burner phones” were used in the 9/11 attacks, the failed Times Square bombing, and the Paris attacks. Failure to hold them to the same standard as regular contract phones poses a serious risk to national security.

GIven that burner phones have been associated with criminal activity since forever, if anyone seriously felt the need to close the “loophole,” you’d think they’d have accomplished it already. (Here’s a failed attempt from 2010, made by Sens. Chuck Shumer and John Cornyn post-Times Square bombing.) What Speier wants to do is generate yet another set of third-party records to be housed by phone providers that can be accessed without warrants.

Even if this passes, it will do little to allow law enforcement agencies to follow up on burners recovered after attacks. Criminals and terrorists won’t be presenting identification — at least not theirs — to retailers. In fact, they’re going to do what they’ve done before: use straw purchasers or buy directly from resellers who fall outside of the bill’s likely purview — like individuals or online retailers.

This will have little investigative worth, but it will generate a ton of records on people who don’t have any option but to buy prepaid phones, whether it’s due to credit issues or a lack of verifiable identification. Many won’t have the ID options requested, like credit/debit cards. Some may not have state ID/Social Security cards either. Adding this requirement will just inflict further difficulties on people whose lives are filled with difficulties already.

Then there are those who do have these things but would prefer to use a “burner” for conversations/communications they don’t want to have linked to a phone that, for all intents and purposes, identifies them. Activists and journalists are two groups that immediately come to mind. So do philandering spouses, but that sort of activity is really none of the government’s business — nor the retailers acting as prepaid phone dragnets on the government’s behalf.

And then there will be any number of people who buy prepaid phones simply to leave less of a personally-identifiable digital footprint — without having to surrender most of their communication options.

In addition to these issues, requiring registration for prepaid phones will both lead to more criminal activity (in the form of a new black market for unregistered phones) and adversely affect smaller retailers who will now be shouldering additional burdens for the government. From a 2013 GSM (Groupe Speciale Mobile) report on registration requirements for SIM cards: (h/t Glyn Moody)

In countries where prepaid users represent the majority of the mobile communications market, the costs to mobile operators of implementing new registration processes can be significant including:

• Training staff and retailers i.e. on how to register users, what the acceptable forms of identity are and how to verify them;
• Investing in public awareness campaigns to inform their customers about the need to register;
• Ensuring that customer data databases are accurately updated, maintained and secured;
• Monitoring compliance and deactivating all unregistered SIM cards after the imposed deadline; and
• Verifying, copying and storing users’ identity documents.

The report also recommends:

Governments considering mandating the registration of prepaid users should seek to consult with industry stakeholders and conduct impact assessments before introducing regulation.

Right now, the only entity that has been consulted is Rep. Speier’s gut instinct. It says, “Do something!”

Certainly a cell provider can gather any information it wants in exchange for providing phone service, but third parties like Wal-Mart and Target shouldn’t be put in the position of tracking certain people who make certain purchases. As useful as it may be to have this information lying around (and that’s certainly disputable), Speier’s proposal will do little to prevent attacks and criminal activity while harming the privacy interests (and more) of her constituents.

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Comments on “Rep. Speier Wants To Register Every Prepaid Phone Purchase, In Case Someone Bad Uses One As A Burner Phone”

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Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Next Steps

Bad guys turn to stealing phones. Legislators notice that stealing is already illegal, increase personal panic levels.

Bad guys meet in crowded public places and pass notes that are later burned. Legislators write legislation banning paper, pencils, public places, meetings between two or more people, the passing of notes, and fire. Puppy love affairs take a serious dip.

Bad guys read newspapers that carry stories about the moral panic expressed by legislators and figure out something those legislators haven’t panicked about…yet. Legislators move to ban all communication between bad guys, and make up penalties that will definitely cause them to think twice about communicating with other bad guys. Bad guys have a good belly laugh and send each other emails consisting mostly of LOL’s and ROFLMOL’s. NSA tries to break the new code, fails and calls in the FBI.

Legislators panic about something some creative fiction writer writes about but seems logical to them and try to have that fiction writer imprisoned for aiding and abetting while they write up new panic legislation about giving the bad guys ideas without first making the actuality of those ideas illegal. Embarrassment ensues when the legislators later find out that fiction writer died 3 decades ago.

Legislators find that they are running out of things to panic about and write legislation requiring mandatory panic about nothing and everything so they can write more panic driven legislation with out panicking about having nothing to panic about.

AJ says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“there is no consitutional right to an unregistered gun either, just a right to a gun.”

If it would stop at register the gun, I would be all about it. If the Gov came forward and said.. look guys, register all your guns so we at least know what gun is where and who’s got what, and that will be the end of the gun control conversation, then fine… I would be first in line. But it never stops at just that. They would take more and more until suddenly, you had no rights at all.

Charles (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“If it would stop at register the gun, I would be all about it. If the Gov came forward and said.. look guys, register all your guns so we at least know what gun is where and who’s got what, and that will be the end of the gun control conversation, then fine… I would be first in line. But it never stops at just that. They would take more and more until suddenly, you had no rights at all.”

If it would stop at register the prepaid phone, I would be all about it. If the Gov came forward and said.. look guys, register all your prepaid phones so we at least know what gun is where and who’s got what, and that will be the end of the prepaid phone control conversation, then fine… I would be first in line. But it never stops at just that. They would take more and more until suddenly, you had no rights at all.

Where does it end?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

There’s no constitutional right to a cell phone.

Of course not. Those pesky “speech” protections only apply to the methods of speech that aren’t inconvenient to the government. That sounds right.

After all, while the government can’t force you to register for the right to speak, they can force you to register if you want to distribute your speech in any way other than shouting.

Artfldgr says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Registering firearms in no way violates any Constitutional right.

so you would also be happy with every woman registering her abortion and making that public as well? after all, such registries are on the public and not secret, which is why the leftists were able to publish the names of the gun owners in ny state and faciliate that they be robbed…

so, register your speech before you say it (why not, registering what you say is not going to stop you from saying it, right?)

then register who your going to meet with if its more than three people (who cares about freedom of association, we can build a database of who everyone meets with. your still free to meet, but you have to register these meetings with the state)

of course you dont see the outcome of allowing them down this path in a thread where they are trying to go down that path.

hey… if registering does not inhibit, then why not register your deseases too? hippa be damned, why not make an aids registry…

oh, and since registries are not a problem, lets register all the gay people, so that we can send them pamplets about things that they should be informed of…

i know, why not a registry of people who want registries?

Artfldgr says:

Re: Re:

Legislatures can continue playing this game of stop the criminal but it will never solve the problem. Maybe they should look at why there are criminals in the first place. People always try to treat the symptoms but never the disease.

because you cant be free if they do that? they would just make anything they didnt want a desease and like the soviet union did, use medicine as another form of supression

now what if they found a genetic disposition? of course genes are not enough, but in case you didnt notice, a huge percentage of people in prison happen to have anti-person disorders.

its nice to see that with the gun registry and your other suggestions, your following the ideas of a funky austrian dude that took over germany in the 1930s and 1940s and with russia started WWII

Theodore Adorno of the Frankfurt school thought he could test for authoritarians and remove them from the population, the problem is that the test found more communists than others… (as do modern copies that fail too)

why was crime so low in the past?
well that was pre feminism… when moms could rear their kids (you raise corn, you rear animals), teach them, and all the mothers and other women were home so committing crimes was a lot harder.

once the feminists destroyed the familyu with the help of the state and their welfare rules, the kids are raised by tv, and socialists in schools.. you know, people who are teaching things like loving anal sex, but wont teach them how to be polite… go figure.. (and before you say no they dont do that, do some research… )

so your against womens liberation as a way to reduce crime?
if not, then you have no place to go with this as the kids are now raised by their peers and the state from kindergarten to mid adult and have no idea how the world works… after all, the ows people had degrees and wanted hand outs and not one group of them could get together to start their own company by pooling skills and working to obtain resources for them from things ranging from angel investors, to crowdfunding..

Anon says:


There’s no constitutional right to bear phones. Therefore, you must register all phones.

Eventually, we’ll have to close the Phone Show loophole, too.

After all, phones, unlike guns, can be lethal. They kill thousands of people a year, double that if you also include texting while driving. Registering phones will alleviate this carnage and make us all safer.

DannyB (profile) says:

Homeless people need phones too

Suppose someone does not have a permanent address?

Or credit or debit cards, but only cash?

They still very probably need a mobile phone to obtain a job, which can lead to having a bank account and a permanent address.

The government really needs to get it’s act together. I propose the following reforms:
1. you need a bank account to get a home or apartment
2. you need a permanent physical residence address to get a bank account
3. you need both 1 and 2 to get a phone
4. you need 1, 2 and 3 to get a job.
5. you need a job (4) to get the first two (1 and 2)
Please support this proposed bill.

Bob says:

Already tracked and utilized.

Certainly a cell provider can gather any information it wants in exchange for providing phone service, but third parties like Wal-Mart and Target shouldn’t be put in the position of tracking certain people who make certain purchases. As useful as it may be to have this information lying around (and that’s certainly disputable),

You are forgetting that Wal-Mart, Target, and any other large corporation is most certainly already keeping this information. Every time you purchase an item at Wal-Mart it is tracked to the biggest extent possible. What was purchased, where it was purchased, the price, etc. However if you use a debit/credit/gift/discount card that purchase is aggregated to all other transactions on that card.

People often forget that information is a highly valuable commodity and that is why Amazon, Google, Facebook, Wal-Mart,etc. (basically all your big corporations) most certainly already do track all the information possible at their fingertips.

So your comment that it is disputable is already answered by the large corporations. Now it is just a question of do we want the governments to have access to that information.

JBDragon says:

Re: Shouldn't private conversations be registered?

Who are all these pedophiles talking to? Sending encrypted text to others?

When is the Government just going to come right out and say they want to read your mind. That you get no privacy. You’re nothing but a Taxpayer to help pay for the ever growing and corrupt Government!!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Limiting access to phones will resolve nothing

If I were a criminal the last thing I would use to detonate my bomb is a cell phone. My luck some telemarketer would call at the worst time wanting to sell me life insurance or something.

Timers work great as do walkie Talkies, simple switches, assembly of various parts from Radio Shack and a million other things.

How about this for a change in tactics? Stop messing in the affairs of other nations and killing their people and they won’t be so pissed of as to want to kill us!

Follow the golden rule my Mom taught me:
“Treat others as you would like to be treated”

As opposed to the golden rule politicians follow:
“Those with the gold make the rules”

Peter (profile) says:

Re: Already a requirement in Europe

Same in Germany. Doesn’t seem to stop terrorists. Or drug dealers.

Great for advertisers, though. When Google, Facebook et al trick you into sending your mobile number ‘for security reasons’, you might as well send them your passport number.

Who are the biggest donors behind Rep. Speier?

klaus says:

Re: Re: Already a requirement in Europe

The UK has no such requirement, which is quite odd given their authoritarian state apparatus and FUD-riddled, knee-jerk politicians.

You can buy unlocked (i.e. no carrier) phones quite cheaply from any high-street shop or supermarket. They also sell branded and own-brand SIMs, and it’s quite trivial to buy airtime credit vouchers at the check-out. And of course, cash is welcome.

I have one such phone for any website or outfit that wants to verify my “real-world” identity, because frankly I don’t want marketing calls to my personal phone and I don’t trust organizations with my information.

Anonymous Coward says:

This won’t work. When you purchase a prepaid or “burner” cellphone, the cellphone company will require your name, address and other pertinent information in order to activate your burner phone. I’ve went through this process. I doubt I would continue owning a prepaid phone if this law were to go through and just purchase a phone through a straw-purchaser.

I don’t like having to provide my information twice in order to purchase a prepaid phone. This law would require you to give your information to the owner of a store selling prepaid phones. What happens if the store owners decide to use your information to commit identity theft and use your information to sign up for credit cards or other crap?

Prepaid phones can be purchased anywhere, not just a cellphone dealer such as an authorized dealer like Best Buy, Target or Walmart. There are also convenience stores who might not be as reputable as Best Buy or Target.

JBDragon says:

Re: Re:

You can get Pre-Pay phones, get Pre-Pay cards and pay for them with Cash. As far as I know, there’s no need to give out name and address. If you did, you can just make anything you want up. Doesn’t matter. They’re not running a credit check on you. You’re a Pre-Paid user. You’re paying for the service before you use it, not after you use it.

Anonymous Coward says:

The government wants to turn prepaid phones into contract phones. if they require you to have a credit card in order to purchase a prepaid cellphone, then it will kill the prepaid cellphone market here in the United States.

Expect the prepaid cellphone providers to launch strong opposition over this new law. I expect that lobbyists will launch into action to stop this bill because it will have a disastrous effect on the prepaid cellphone industry.

Talk about a kneejerk reaction over what happened in Brussels.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

My Emergency Prepaid Phone.

Well, I got a prepaid cellphone, getting on a couple of years ago, because I had just had a fire, or rather, the apartment above me had had a fire, and the water from the sprinkler system had come crashing down. I hadn’t previously felt I needed a cellphone, so I didn’t have one. In fact, under conditions of “normalcy,” I use the cellphone remarkably infrequently.

This fire happened at two in the morning on a Sunday. For the first couple of hours, I had no leisure to worry about my belongings, even my wallet. People came first, and it was more important to get the building evacuated, the fire department called, and to keep hysterical residents out of the firemen’s way. My single most over-riding concern was the safety of the Chinese toddler in one of the other apartments. At the moment when I could have recovered my wallet with little difficulty, I was in fact sprinting to pound on the Chinese couple’s door. Rep. Jackie Speier, for whom ID cards and bank cards are sacred, will never understand in a million years why I made that choice. For a few hours, I suppose I could have been described as “homeless.” When the dust had settled, the landlord gave me the key of a vacant furnished apartment (no bed linens, kitchen stuff, etc. set up for showing to prospective tenants, not for use as a motel room), and I simply crashed on the uncovered mattress for a few hours. Once it was day, I went back into the damaged apartment, and started salvaging, starting with my clothes, and proceeding to anything which looked as if it were in immediate danger of water damage. It was difficult to walk in the damaged apartment, because the floor had buckled. I dragged my clothes down to the laundromat and laundered them, they being work clothes for the most part, designed to get really dirty. I tried to call up the local dry cleaner for everything else and was told that they didn’t do fire-salvage. Somewhere in the process, I had put some really nasty blisters on my feet. I had been in pain-override mode, doing what I had to do.

I crashed back on the still-uncovered mattress, more or less drained, as the shock began to set in. The doorbell rang, and when I struggled to my feet, and opened the door, there was my sister, who had just driven three hundred miles to help out. She handed me a bag of potato chips, and ordered me to eat them forthwith. As I did so, she made her own rapid inspection of the apartment, and commenced making arrangements. Apart from dealing with the landlord, and getting the local fire-salvage company in, she charged off to Wal-Mart and got assorted housewares; food and essential kitchen stuff to cook and eat it with; and bandages for my feet, and a pre-paid cellphone. I was feeling physically ill at the time, and not really up to going to Wal-Mart with her. Once I had the cellphone, I had to go back into the damaged apartment to use the land-line to activate the cellphone. Rep. Jackie Spier would presumably call that a “dummy purchase.”

Now, of course, if I had bought a firearm under those circumstances, it would have been ominous, since I do not live by hunting. But a cellphone is not primarily a means for taking the law into one’s own hands.

The landlord commenced repairs on the least-damaged apartment, and made arrangements to have my books, thousands of them, moved into it. That took two weeks. Once the books were in the new apartment, they had to be physically unpacked, and stored in shelves, to make enough space that I could physically move in. It transpired that not all the physical wirelines in the building were operational– presumably the telephone company had been borrowing segments for one purpose or another, and I had to use the cellphone to contact the phone company to sort it out. It was only then that we had the luxury of sorting out the paper-work. By the time I had complied with the Department of Motor Vehicles’s catch-22 requirements and gotten my ID card straightened out, on the third visit, it was about a month from the night of the fire. Life would have been considerably messier if the cellphone had been caught up in the catch-22.

Of course, Rep. Jackie Speier does not care about the problems of people who have fires. Life is messy after a fire. If someone insists on checking you out to the N-th degree, by electronic databases, you will inevitably look like an illegal immigrant. Parenthetically, the Indian medical student who had been in the process of moving into one of the apartments on the night of the fire was very relieved to recover his passport, which he had put in what he thought was a safe place, in the closet of his new apartment.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: Re: My Emergency Prepaid Phone.

Too much good sense.

Of course, Rep. Jackie Speier, in terms of her own perverse logic, would want to ban fire alarms, for fear that fires might be used to pass messages, in something like a Jorge Luis Borges story. The firemen do not ask a lot of dumb questions. When they get a report of an alarm at box number such-and-such, they pile on the rig, and roll out of the firehouse with lights flashing, and sirens blaring, and without even knowing whether it’s a fire they are going to, or a car smash, or a medical emergency like a heart attack or seizure. Nowadays, fire departments try to get as many EMT’s and RN’s as they can manage. Of course, thousands of people hear the fire engine coming. There are places like New York where false alarms are a major pain-in-the-arse, but the firemen still assume that an alarm is real until proven otherwise.

John85851 (profile) says:

What about telemarketers

All this talk about how terrorists might use burner phones overlooks the obvious: telemarketers that use burner phones. You know, the ones that call you at 9:00pm even though you’re on the Do Not Call List to tell you you’re eligible for a credit card fee reduction. Sure, you can report their current number to the Do Not Call list again, but nothing’s going to happen if they simply toss the phone after a few hours of use.

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