Is it really a threat to our national security that people can pay cash for prepaid cell phones? That is the thought behind federal legislation that has been introduced in the Senate by Democrat Chuck Schumer and Republican John Cornyn. To buy a phone you would have to provide identification and the retailer would have to retain the information for 18 months. In Schumer’s words,
This proposal is overdue because for years, terrorists, drug kingpins and gang members have stayed one step ahead of the law by using prepaid phones that are hard to trace. We caught a break in catching the Times Square terrorist, but usually a prepaid cell phone is a dead end for law enforcement. There’s no reason why it should still be this easy for terror plotters to cover their tracks.
Of course, as they say, if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to worry about.
As Jim Dwyer points out in the New York Times, a lot of people other than gangsters and terrorists like the anonymity of prepaid phones. Tipsters contacting journalists, and journalists calling tipsters who don’t want to be receiving identifiable calls. Battered women. Cheating spouses.
It’s an old story. We can make it harder for the bad guys to hide by enabling the government to track everything we do. Where do we draw the line and say we’d rather take the risk–when the tradeoffs are so hard to quantify, and the worst case scenarios so terrifying?
It’s coming, I’d guess; as is registration for Internet services, already the law in South Korea. When the left (which is happy with more social intervention and control) and the right (which foresees the end of civilization in the bungling Times Square bomber) line up, the libertarian arguments don’t have much traction.
But wait: In Mexico you have to register your cell phone, and there is widespread resistance! I wonder why.
As the government pushed citizens to register their phones, the newspaper El Universal sent a reporter out to the notorious black market bazaar in Mexico City known as Tepito and found that for $12,000 a person could buy the complete data set for every registered voter in Mexico — their names, addresses, dates of birth, driver’s license and social security numbers. The vendors said their best customers included organized crime and police agents.
The technical term for that is “repurposing” data.