Lawmaker Targets Burner Phones Over Terrorism, Ignores Unintended Consequences Tied to New Restrictions
As politicians in Washington DC continue to wage what the late author Gore Vidal called an “idiotic” and “eternal” war on terror, more lawmakers refer to anti-liberty measures to crack down on potential terrorists at home.
A bill known as Closing the Pre-Paid Mobile Device Security Gap Act of 2016 seeks to require consumers looking into buying prepaid burner phones to register and provide identification. Requirements would make it impossible for consumers to purchase the so-called burner phones without providing personal information upon purchase. According to Tech Dirt, the bill’s timing may have something to do with reports claiming that burner phones used by Islamist extremists helped them to evade law enforcement.
Democratic congresswoman Jackie Speier, the same lawmaker who introduced the proposal in Congress, called the prepaid phone “loophole” an “egregious gap in our legal framework.” According to the lawmaker and others who support the bill, allowing consumers to purchase anonymous phones helps terrorists and criminals.
This is not the first time Washington DC has targeted regular consumers in their fight against an abstract enemy. Recently, legislators targeted encrypted phones after reports claimed terrorists had used encryption to evade law enforcement. The encryption reports were later debunked.
According to Tech Dirt, the current proposal doesn’t provide a great deal of information on how legislators want to tackle the burner phone issue. But while the bill’s text remains a secret, the proposal has already been referred to three House committees.
If Speier’s proposal is passed by both the House and the Senate and it ends up making it to the president’s desk, customers would have to always provide their personal details to retailers whenever they purchase a burner phone. But what Tech Dirt writers claim is that, even if the law were to pass, it would do little to keep terrorists or criminals from providing their personal information. Instead, Tech Dirt argues, criminals would continue doing what they have already done in the past by using straw purchases or buying directly from resellers.
Much like the debate about background checks for gun purchases, the idea of forcing retailers to request extra information from prepaid phone consumers is likely to backfire, pushing criminals further into the dark. Another potential consequence of passing this law would be that the poor will be the first to suffer.
Too often, low income consumers choose to purchase burner phones because of credit issues or simply because they do not have the identification requirements needed to open an account with a phone service provider. A burner phone law change would end up inflicting further difficulties on those who are already suffering greatly. Furthermore, boosting restrictions could also push the price of these affordable phones up, which will also end up hurting the poor.
If lawmakers are serious about spotting criminals and targeting them—not common and innocent Americans who may not feel comfortable releasing their personal information in exchange for a cheap cell phone—this bill should be tossed. Quickly.