Lawmakers seek prepaid cell crackdown, cite terror

Jun 08, 2010 By BETH FOUHY , Associated Press Writer

(AP) -- Alarmed by the use of hard-to-track prepaid cell phones by terror suspects, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and Texas Sen. John Cornyn have introduced legislation requiring consumers to produce identification before buying such phones.

The bill has been praised by and has bipartisan support, even as civil liberties groups have raised and some terror experts say it won't 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 back the measure.

Prepaid phones can be a lifeline for people with limited incomes or poor credit, allowing them to purchase a device and a limited amount of calling time without commiting to a costly contract. Phone companies sold $16 billion worth of prepaid cell phones last year, and the devices are hugely popular in both the U.S. and countries around the world.

But since the phones can be purchased anonymously and are thrown away after use, they've long been a favored tool of drug dealers, gang members and even white-collar criminals looking to cover their tracks.

In recent years, such phones also have been linked to suspected terror activity - including that by Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American accused of plotting to bomb Times Square. said Shahzad had used a to purchase a car in which to hide the bomb and to communicate with co-conspirators in Pakistan.

A handful of states and several countries require registration to purchase a prepaid cell phone. In an interview, 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, adding, "you can make sure privacy is protected."

That's not a view necessarily shared by civil liberties groups and other advocates of digital privacy, who say they have both legal and practical objections.

"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," said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Tien also noted that many people, especially younger ones, 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, saying the identity of prepaid cell purchasers would be kept private by phone companies in the same way the identities of regular cell and landline phone owners are protected.

So far, 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 rquires small gives by everyone," Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson said.

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

"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."

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MikeMike
Jun 08, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
gunslingor1
5 / 5 (1) Jun 08, 2010
"If law enforcement has a legitimate need to surveil, let them surveil,"
-I agree! Problem is, they are no longer required to prove a "legitimate" claim in court by getting a warrent, thanks Patriot act for allowing mass survalence of an entire country!

This is rediculous, just the mention of this possibility of enacting the new law gaurantees terror suspects won't be using this method of communication, so only normal consummers are affected.

I use prepaid simply because I don't want the governemnt listening in, no worries, I have plenty of ways around this, and they will be implemented.

At best these guys know nothing about cyber security and are just plan ignorant; at worst, they are curropt beyond beleif and are just looking to track any civilian who opposes their view.

Next, we will have to show ID for an email account, to use a payphone, use a public phone, drop a letter in the mail, have a conversation, start a webpage, post a comment, and all the other forms of com
Arkaleus
5 / 5 (1) Jun 08, 2010
"If law enforcement has a legitimate need to surveil, let them surveil. . ."

That's not the standard of law. Our republic is divided into three partitions. The part of our government that "lets" them surveil when they have a legitimate need is called the judicial branch, and the process is in place already. It's called a "warrant." This fantastic new invention (of which Rep. Schumer has apparently not heard of) allows any law enforcement to surveil and inspect freely.

This is part of a larger concept called "Rule of Law" which means the government must abide by same laws it enforces. When a government refuses to abide by its own laws, it becomes a new form of government, similar to those of Hitler, Stalin, or Franco. Those "governments" were famously fond of unlimited state power, and apportioned limitless liberties for themselves while enforcing their will upon their subjects and captives.

What these two fools advocate is not law, but the lack of it.