U.S. Bill May Force Pre-Paid Cell Phone Buyers To Give Personal Info

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News Posted: Thu, May 27 2010 5:42 PM
Did you know that you can purchase a cell phone in the United States without actually handing over any personal information at all? It's true. For years, consumers have been able to purchase pre-paid cell phones from stores such as Wal-Mart, and since they can be purchased with cash, there's little to no trace left behind. For many, they don't actually stop to think about this, but for drug lords and other criminals who wish to maintain a low cover while communicating on the go, having a pre-paid cell phone is the ultimate luxury.

In Australia, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Norway, Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland and Thailand, users who purchase pre-paid mobiles must register so that the nation will know who is behind the call should something go awry. Some may view this as an invasion of privacy, but for those who purchase post-paid phones, they all have to cough up their personal information anyway. This is basically aligning the information requirements for post- and pre-paid consumers. Now, the U.S. is considering similar action, as pre-paid mobiles in the hands on criminals is usually a dead-end for investigators.

According to a new report, the proposed legislation would "require buyers of pre-paid cell phones to show identification when they purchase them and mandate that telephone companies keep the information on file as they do with subscription cell phones." Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer stated the following: "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 largely agree. If this were a serious invasion of privacy, that's one thing; but given that post-paid mobile users already have to give up their personal information, there's no reason to prevent pre-paid users from doing the same. As they say, if you have nothing to hide, you should have nothing to worry about. There's no time table for when the bill may become law, but it's good to see progress being made. It's long overdue, in our estimation.

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3vi1 replied on Fri, May 28 2010 1:38 PM

>> if you have nothing to hide, you should have nothing to worry about

Tell that to Khalid El-Masri. He was kidnapped by the CIA, flown to Afghanistan, tortured, and later released when they realized he was actually a German who's only crime was having a name similar to that of a known terrorist.

All the pre-paid bill will do is encourage criminals to engage in more identity-theft.  But you certainly won't mind flying to Guantanamo and explaining to the CIA why some radical milita member blew up a government building after you apparently bought him a phone, right?

He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither. -- Benjamin Franklin

What part of "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" don't you understand?


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AKwyn replied on Fri, May 28 2010 8:53 PM

I don't like this bill either.

Criminals will find a way around anything, including giving out their information. All this will do is just make more people the victims of identity theft, all for the benefit of crime. And I don't feel comfortable with giving my information whenever I want to buy a pre-paid cellphone. While I do feel comfortable with giving out my information to a cell phone company for a contract. I just don't feel comfortable giving out information for a cellphone that I may or may not use again.


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lobo_rijo replied on Sat, May 29 2010 4:30 AM

Good grief Ray, what an awful post. It is staggering how many things you get wrong in a few short paragraphs. Here’s a critique of one part of one sentence: “..but given that post-paid mobile users already have to give up their personal information, there's no reason to prevent pre-paid users from doing the same."


1) post-paid subscribers do not have to give up their info. They implicitly choose to do so because they have the option to purchase an anonymous pre-paid phone. Schumer’s bill takes away this choice, removing a liberty from the 99.999999% of Americans who are not terrorists or drug dealers.


2) The phrase ”there’s no reason to prevent…” is nonsense that inaccurately reframes your argument. “there’s no reason” is exactly that, no reason. One should not do something simply because one can’t think of a reason not to do it – especially Congress! Also, pre-paid buyers are not “prevented” from anything – in fact they are ‘not forced’ to give personal information. Big difference. Again, CHOICE, or liberty, is the concept you fail to comprehend.


3) Taking it all together (and ignoring problems 1 and 2) reveals yet another failure of logic: if users of ‘A’ have to do ‘X’, then users of ‘B’ should have to do ‘X’. Wrong. Try substituting two other products for A and B, like “hairspray” and “guns.”



As a tech-blogger, instead of wading into politics, you might have kept it neutral or written about the gaping technical loophole in the plan (a little thing called VOIP). The same technology the military, the government, and Chuck Schumer use for classified communications is easily implemented on a smart phone or laptop, allowing drug dealers and terrorists to chat all they want. The bill will do nothing for our national security.


Also, if you insist on editorializing on politics, please take a few minutes to grasp the basics of the opposing viewpoint. You have mindlessly rehashed the "if you have nothing to hide…” argument with no regard for its faulty underpinnings. Read some Bruce Schneier or Daniel Solove if you care to better understand the privacy debate.

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