Hazelton: bill to require identification when buying prepaid or ‘burner’ phones limits personal liberty

Paul Hazelton

Most of the debate surrounding phones and national security has hinged on whether encryption technologies should be accessible to the general public and whether cell phone manufacturers like Apple should install a backdoor into their devices.

Recently, however, Congresswoman Jackie Spier has proposed a bill that would require citizens to turn over their identification when buying prepaid, disposable phones or “burners,” as they are often called. The idea behind this bill (which is being discussed this week) is to make the planning and execution of terrorist attacks, drug deals, human trafficking and many other crimes much more difficult.


Now, it’s more than fair to argue that criminals are one of the biggest purveyors of this product. As Congresswoman Spier points out on her Facebook page, “The ‘burner phone’ loophole is an egregious gap in our legal framework that allows actors like the 9/11 hijackers and the Times Square bomber to evade law enforcement while they plot to take innocent lives. The Paris attackers also used ‘burner phones.'” What isn’t reasonable is to expect this measure to cause terrorists or anyone else anything more than an annoyance. It’s also unreasonable to use those examples, as two occurred before our current security apparatus was created and the other was in a separate country.

At any rate, if the legislature decides to make citizens register for these devices,  one of two things is bound to happen. Either they’ll unintentionally create a black market for untraceable phones, which will drive up crime, or criminals will find alternative ways of communicating — many of which are less hackable than burners.

For example, plenty of criminals have already turned to TOR and the Dark Web as a means of both sale for illegal items and secure transmissions. Even simpler than that, these individuals could revert back to ’90s tech and utilize pagers and pay phones, which are completely hack-proof. And if a smart terrorist/criminal really didn’t want to get caught, they could always utilize snail mail or flash drive dead drops.

Besides, it’s already possible to track a disposable phone and the process has led to multiple arrests. These burner phones, like all others, work by communicating with cell towers. If you can triangulate the signal, you find the phone’s location and therefore its user. Once found, the device is hackable and will probably tell you most of what you want to know.  However, if you’ve got the number and the purchaser was dumb enough to pay with a card, the Feds can get a warrant for that information — no registration needed. After that’s done, boom, they’ve got a name. The trick to this equation is knowing what phone to look for in the first place — a.k.a. the reason for the bill. But again, while it’s well-intended, I doubt Spier’s plan will have much effect.

If this bill passes, the dregs of the world won’t be buying burner phones any more, at least not from 7-Eleven or any other reputable company. This means the government will be forcing average men and women to register their names to phones that many bought for the sole reason of hiding from Big Brother. Is that overly paranoid? Perhaps, but that’s not the point. In a country centered on personal liberty, shouldn’t we have the freedom to remove ourselves, at least slightly, from the grid and the NSA’s Sauron-like, all-seeing eye? 

Collegian Columnist Paul Hazelton can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @HazeltonPaul.