Over the past couple of years, law enforcement at large has ramped up its efforts to try to gain access to communication mediums, which can include being able to browse unlocked smartphones. As it stands today, most jurisdictions do not give a member of law enforcement the ability to gain access to a smartphone without a warrant, and because a PIN code is personal information, it cannot simply be asked of someone to provide it. That hasn't halted efforts to get rid of such roadblocks, though. Even if it requires brute force, agencies like the FBI want in, especially in high stakes, high profile cases against the threat of terrorism.
There has been much discussion regarding the ongoing battle between Apple and the FBI, which stemmed from the San Bernardino terrorist attacks in December. The FBI wants into the attacker's iPhone, and Apple has continued to claim that it can't let anyone in, and is likewise disinterested in helping someone do their dirty work. This case became interesting earlier this week, though, when the FBI publicly claimed it didn't need Apple anymore for its ongoing investigation - at least for the time-being.
As Apple's current battle proves, the government doesn't want to be held back if it wants into an alleged criminal's smartphone. A common alternative for those who want to better protect themselves from prying eye has been to use 'throwaway' phones, which has been fine for those willing to deal with the hassles of working with them. However, focus has begun to turn to these prepaid devices as well, to potentially render them useless for those who want them for terrorist or otherwise nefarious purposes, while making them a major inconvenience for those buying them for legitimate reasons.
And as it turns out, California Representative Jackie Speier has just introduced a new bill that would require retailers to ID and jot down information on their customers purchasing prepaid phones. That information would include a full name, home address, and date of birth. If that sounds a bit unusual for a such a simple purchase, it gets better (or worse as the case may be). The information would need to be verified with either a credit card or social security number.
To require an SSN to purchase a prepaid smartphone changes these measures from 'unusual' to 'extreme'. As important as an SSN is, it's obviously never wise to give it out freely. In fact, there are very few institutions that someone might work with that should have access to it. That goes for contract plans as well: giving out a social security number is simply a risk.
If this bill were to pass, it would set a major precedent, as purchasing a mere prepaid smartphone would include the kind of scrutiny you'd expect when buying a firearm. The difference is that buying a prepaid smartphone wouldn't require a government application to be filled out.
Since this bill has only just been introduced, there's no saying that it's going to succeed for long. The next step would be that it needs to be passed in the House, and there's no saying the chances are of it, though it sounds like a threat. However, with the government's efforts to crack down on device encryption and general privacy at an all-time high, we can't just assume that there won't at least be some support behind it.