Blown To Bits

Should You Need an ID to Get a Cell Phone?

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The Massachusetts legislature is considering a bill that would require registration of prepaid cell phones. Here is the beginning of the text of H 4799:

(a) Any person making a retail sale of a prepaid cell phone shall, as a precondition to the sale, obtain and photograph or photocopy one or more documents identifying the purchaser by name and providing his address. The seller shall, for each retail sale, make and keep for a period of 2 years a record which shall include, but not be limited to, the following: (1) the serial number and manufacturer of the phone; (2) the phone number assigned to the cell phone; (3) the service supplier who will supply wireless service to the phone; and (4) a copy of all documents related to the identification of the purchaser.

And of course the retailer would have to turn that information over to the state.

People with bad credit pay cash for these throwaway phones. Immigrants who don’t have papers use throwaway phones. I’ll bet teenagers who don’t want their parents to know who they are talking to buy these phones.

And no doubt drug dealers use these phones. And that is the reason this bill is coming forward–as an aid to the police.

So this is a fairly standard liberty-security issue, of the non-terror variety. It would help the police get the bad guys if they knew they could get data on anyone, good or bad.

But if cell phones, why not email accounts, which you can get without showing ID (with Gmail for example, they are free and set up from the comfort of home)? Or postage stamps–wouldn’t it help the gumshoes if they could trace a cancelled stamp back to the identity of the person who mailed it?

It reminds me of Judge Richard Posner’s view of the FISA surveillance legislation, that it “retains value as a framework for monitoring the communications of known terrorists, but it is hopeless as a framework for detecting terrorists.” What you really want is not to be able to surveil the people you already suspect are terrorists. You want to be able to surveil everyone, and just pick out, from what you learn, the bad guys from the good.

The founding fathers had been through all that, and that’s why they wrote the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees no searches without “probable cause.” As usual with these bills, the people who would be obviously disadvantaged by the loss of privacy are not everyone’s favorites, and that’s the way these bills gain plausibility. Who cares if illegal immigrants can’t get cell phones, or 15-year-olds need their parents’ approval?

But this cell phone bill feels to me like one that trades too much privacy for too little security. I say keep the information out of the hands of the government; it’s none of their business if I want to buy one of these phones.

PS. Excellent opinion piece by Tim Wu in the NYT today about broadband deployment, summarizing, as it happens, the main argument of Chapter 8.

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