No More Cheap “Burner” Phones For You!

burnerphoneAnother day, another piece of bullshit government legislation trying to get passed. As an anarchist, I generally don’t care to talk much about policies and legislation at the Dark Android Project, but this one bears a little discussion.

House Representative Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) has put forward a bill that will require retailers to ask for identification from anyone buying a prepaid cellphone.

The bill, called “Closing the Pre-Paid Mobile Device Security Gap Act of 2016”, is designed to “close one of the most significant gaps in our ability to track and prevent acts of terror, drug trafficking, and modern-day slavery”, according to Speier.

The bill will require anyone purchasing a “pre-paid mobile device or SIM card” to provide:

1. The full name of the purchaser.
2. The complete home address of the purchaser.
3. The date of birth of the purchaser.

Retailers would require a Federal or State ID, a W–2 Wage and Tax Statement, a Form 1099 from the Social Security Administration or other government agency, or any other document so deemed eligible by the Attorney General. Retailers would then be required to keep a record of this information, along with information about the phone.

You can read the full text of the bill here, and Spieler’s statement on her website.

There are so many issues with this whole thing, I don’t even know where to begin. For one, be clear that this is one of the ultimate slippery slopes. If you can regulate one electronic device for sale, you can regulate any electronic device. Just set the precedent. In the future, under the guise of “terrorists use these things!”, you will have to hand over information when you buy a laptop, or a tablet. Or anything really. “Terrorists” and “criminals” have used crockpots, too. Should you hand over all of your data just to cook dinner? It’s ridiculous, but if this passes, it will set the legal precedent for that kind of nonsense (even though in many ways it has long been set).

Or are you thinking that “terrorists” and “criminals” (those quotation marks are important) are the only ones that use these inexpensive pre-paid phones? You’d be wrong. Journalists use such cheap phones in the course of their work, to say nothing of people who have legitimate reasons for not wanting to be tracked, like peaceful activists, abuse victims, and so on. This bill would leave a paper trail that will undoubtedly put some of these people at risk, either from individuals attempting to track someone down, or from an opportunistic bad actor who can use the personal data for their own gain, or even from some tyrannical government (which every government is).

That’s part of what makes this bill so ridiculous (other than the fact that it’s legislation): it requires retailers to retain quite a bit of personal information–somewhere–for at least 18 months, while not mandating any sort of privacy or security requirements to make sure that that information is safe. As written, its requirements are vague, and it’s a privacy disaster waiting to happen.

Speier cites the fact that burner phones were used in terrorist attacks such as 9/11, Paris and Times Square, but ignores the fact that these are an incredible minority of instances. And that’s what always gets missed in so much legislation…it’s usually legislating–often serious–but incredibly rare events. It’s always for the purpose of “safety”.
Fact is, “safety” is meaningless in a world without your liberties being respected, including the liberty to buy a cheap phone, or anything else for that matter. There is no safety when you live under the gun. And “laws = guns pointed at you”. Bottom line. Legislation, laws, bills…by their very nature, these things are “anti-safety”, because they come with the threat of force against you. Nothing safe about that.
At the end of the day, however, this story is just part of the news cycle. It’s click bait for a lot of sites (I don’t mean for it to be so here). The bill might pass, but it’s just as likely that it won’t. There are crazy pieces of legislation that get proposed all the time and never go anywhere, never getting close to passed. This story about “burner” phones was likely just making the rounds because of the recent Apple vs. FBI case (which I covered extensively on my tech podcast: Sovryn Tech).
SIDE NOTE: Even if this bill did pass, a “used phone” black market (that already exists, anyway) would crop up. This bill would just drive the transactions away from “mainstream business”. No matter how governments try, you can’t stop the exchange of goods between determined individuals. I can still buy lawn darts if I really want to, after all (and yes, shockingly, those are illegal).
So I wouldn’t worry too much about it. But it does show just how insane politicians–and thus, governments–really are. Long live the “burner” phone.
Carpe lucem!