Burner phones are still as easily accessible as ever — you just head to your nearest convenience or big-box store, pick up a cheap prepaid phone and a phone card, and like magic you have a completely useable phone sans any identification records. It’s a great thing if you’re in a bind and in need of a last-minute phone, but not so great if you’re law enforcement trying to hunt down potential criminals.
A newly proposed bill sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier of California, if it passes, will require purchasers to show ID when buying a prepaid phone or similar mobile device, as well as when purchasing a SIM card. Under the law, retailers would be required to get a buyer’s personal information, including name, address and Social Security number. Essentially, buying a prepaid phone would become as burdensome as signing up for a new mobile contract.
The bill has been dubbed the “Closing the Pre-Paid Mobile Device Security Gap Act of 2016,” and it aims to make life harder for human traffickers, terrorists, drug dealers, and anyone else who has nefarious reasons for using easily disposable phones. Merchants will feel most of the burden from the bill, though, as they’ll be required to keep records of everyone who purchased a prepaid phone through them — likely meaning places like bodegas and convenience stores will simply stop offering them.
This bill would close one of the most significant gaps in our ability to track and prevent acts of terror, drug trafficking, and modern-day slavery. 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.’ As we’ve seen so vividly over the past few days, we cannot afford to take these kinds of risks. It’s time to close this ‘burner phone’ loophole for good.
Of course, the government hasn’t been entirely blind when it comes to burner phones — leaked documents made public courtesy of whistleblower Edward Snowden reveal the NSA has technology that can track a deactivated phone and correlate it to another phone based on when one shuts down and another is activated nearby. That’s an imperfect science, though, and there’s the potential for fooling the system. Life would be easier for spies and cops like if they could simply request purchase records pack with identification data.
The bill won’t eradicate the existence of burners, of course — a burner could be registered with a fake ID and someone else’s stolen identity, but perhaps easier would be an encrypted call made over an encrypted connection. A smartphone setup to use a VPN in conjunction with an encrypted voice calling app is one option — others include less secure number-jumping apps like “Burner.”