Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Senator John Coryn (R-Texas) have proposed a piece of legislation that would require consumers to present an ID before purchasing a prepaid cell phone, and would force direct providers to keep those customers’ information on file for 18 months after deactivation. The bill comes on the heels of the failed Times Square bombing by Faisal Shahzad, who purportedly used a prepaid phone to arrange the purchase of the Nissan Pathfinder used in the plot.
“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,” Schumer told the Washington Post. Landline and monthly subscription cell phone providers both keep track of their customers’ identities, and countries like Germany, Norway and Switzerland already have similar laws on the books for prepaid phones.
Some privacy advocates are already up in arms about the implications of the bill. But, before you start whipping out the Big Brother/panopticon/police state rhetoric, we really don’t think that this legislation, if passed, would affect the majority of consumers. Schumer and Coryn want the ability to track the one person out of a million who would pose a grievous threat; they don’t want to listen in on your winsome calls to your mom for another care package of Easy Mac and tube socks.
But still, we think that Schumer and Coryn are ignoring, perhaps consciously, the larger picture of civil liberties. While we don’t endorse drug trafficking or support cell-phone-facilitated terror plots, a free society needs anonymous modes of communication. Activists and whistleblowers need anonymity from time to time, and this legislation could hinder their inconspicuousness. Since pay phones are basically obsolete, there exist few other routes of anonymous communication — outside of carrier pigeons and smoke signals, maybe. The Internet is largely unregulated in this country, and, because of that, we have to take the bad with the good. We feel that way about prepaid phones, too. [From: The Washington Post]