Burner Phones: Will Tightening Restrictions on Prepaid Cell Phones Solve Anything? - ITS Tactical

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Burner Phones: Will Tightening Restrictions on Prepaid Cell Phones Solve Anything?

By Rob Henderson


In March, California Congresswoman Jackie Speier introduced a bill to the House that would require those purchasing prepaid cellular devices to submit their ID’s at the time of purchase. In addition, it would require merchants to keep records of those transactions. “Burner phones” are something that we’ve discussed on ITS before and with recent terrorist attacks in places like San Bernadino and this recent legislation, they’re back in the public eye.

The Congresswoman, in a recent press release, cited the need for this new legislation saying, “Burner phones are pre-paid phones that terrorists, human traffickers and narcotics dealers often use to avoid scrutiny by law enforcement because they can be purchased without identification and record-keeping requirements.”

So what’s the problem with closing a “loophole” that only corner drug dealers, terrorists and the bad guys from Die Hard movies are using? As it turns out, these restrictions wouldn’t prevent nefarious characters from communicating at all. It seems like this is nothing more than a restriction on privacy and an attempt to use fear to get legislation passed. Just look at the term “burner phone.”

While the term might conjure up images of a sweaty Jason Bourne evading European police, it’s not a term exclusive to prepaid phones. A “burner” device is anything you’re willing to throw away when you’re done with it. In fact, I just tossed a “burner napkin” away at lunch. I can hear the sirens already.

Prepaid vs. Postpaid


If you’re like millions around the country, you probably receive your cell phone bill in some way or another towards the end of the month. It details the amount of data you consumed, as well as text message activity and minutes used. (Is anyone actually worried about going over on their minutes anymore?)

With a prepaid phone, the amount of usage is predetermined and by the very nature of the device, is anonymous. This isn’t anything that’s been purposefully built in, it’s just a by-product of having the device pre-loaded. In reality, one of the only reasons cell phone companies take so much information from you when you sign up for a postpaid device, is to ensure they’re able to collect if you stop paying the bill.

Why Wouldn’t You Just Provide ID?


To an ordinary, law abiding citizen, it may not seem like that big of an issue to provide an ID at the time of purchasing a prepaid phone, but who’s responsibility is it to keep that ID information secure? Will the burden of security fall to the gas station clerk or discount store cashier? Ignoring the argument that a government shouldn’t arbitrarily collect data on its citizens, there’s a huge potential for identity theft and other security issues.

The fact is, you’re not required to provide ID for purchasing other electronic devices like televisions, computers or tablets, so why would only prepaid phones fall into this new category? Proponents of the proposed law would argue that it’s because these prepaid phones can provide criminals a method of communication that Law Enforcement is unable to track. Because as we all know, secure communication isn’t possible through other means, right?

Secure Communication Through Computers and Tablets


Any WiFi enabled device has the propensity to be used as a communications tool. There are dozens of encrypted emails and chat services available to anyone with Internet access. Going a step further and using a VPN connection or even an unsecured wireless network means that it’s nearly impossible to track communications through these services.

As seen a few months ago, the government is desperately trying to set a precedent for having the ability to break encryption on devices like phones, computers and tablets. By tying encryption and data privacy to things like terrorism, their hope is that we’ll bend and agree to allow them access. There are dangers with the “I’ve got nothing to hide” attitude. You may not see a reason for things like privacy and encryption until it’s too late and they’ve already been taken from you.

Reasons to Own a Prepaid Phone


Many people continue to ask what the legitimate reason for owning a prepaid phone is, but when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter. In the United States, we shouldn’t have to provide reasons for having something. The government should provide valid, solid reasons why people shouldn’t own items and in this case, it’s attempting to use fear and buzzwords to close off a perceived loophole. Pretty soon, they’ll be looking to shut down the “phone show loophole” that will surely develop as private sales of prepaid cellular devices skyrocket.

Sites like Craigslist and eBay are already full of pre-owned devices and requiring ID for these transactions would be near impossible and difficult to enforce. Not to mention stolen devices or devices that have simply had their SIM cards swapped out. Some will defend these devices citing reasons like placing a call to a company without the risk of them selling your personal phone number to telemarketers. Others will tell you they keep a prepaid phone on hand in case their primary phone gets damaged and they need it for emergency use. Whatever the reason people have, no one should need to provide a reason to own devices like this, even if it means they remain anonymous when using them.

Govern, Not Restrict


As technology improves, communication methods will change. The cat and mouse game will continue as long as those seeking to keep communication private are up against those attempting to capture and view that information. Wherever you stand on issues like data privacy, encryption and providing identifying information for simple purchases, it’s important to view these issues from a big picture perspective.

It’s the duty of a government to govern its people and provide security to ensure their well being. It is however, not the duty of a government to restrict citizen’s right to privacy by requiring them to submit information on devices arbitrarily selected under the guise of fear and security.

In closing, I’ll leave you with a quote that’s often argued as being misappropriated. Whatever the context, I believe that Benjamin Franklin would agree that his words ring just as true about data privacy and security as they did when he was addressing a tax dispute, “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

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  • Russ Keith

    Takes all the mystery and suspense out of tracking phone numbers at the NSA.

  • Loca Aldatyme

    I don’t trust the local 7/11 with record keeping.

  • Jack Timar

    Just watch season 3 of The Wire for more information.

  • J.R. Stoelting

    Plus, under 18 can’t purchase anything on contract. The only way they can get a phone on their own is anonymous prepaid.

    • Paul Anderson

      I use a prepaid( it’s cheaper then contract). I know from experience that Walmart( where I purchase my refill cards) doesn’t sell to minors for this reason. A parent has to make the purchase

    • Paulina Subocz

      Why shouldn’t a 16 year old be able to get a phone?
      They can get contraceptives without parents permission but not a phone?

    • Brook Merriman Davis

      Very good point! You can get an abortion without parental consent, but not a $10 cell phone? There’s logic for you!

    • Paul Anderson

      How is one remotely analogous to the other?!?!

    • Paulina Subocz

      That both are things a 16 is old enough to decide about on their own

    • Paulina Subocz

      And those contraceptives can have side effects that a pre paid phone does not.

    • Paul Anderson

      The sixteen year olds( teenagers in general) I know aren’t responsible enough to have a cell. Practical experience( yes, actual experience. Not a generalised opinion.) has taught me that they spend more time socialising rather then working while at work.

  • Mike Autry

    I can tell you that the scammers that tried to get me to cash a fake money order might probably be easier to catch with this regulation.

  • James Fischetti

    You basically sign your life away and give all your info and credit when purchasing a plan from a large phone company anyway.

    • Jaime Ponce de Leon

      Yes. And if you actually read the post and attached article, you see that’s NOT what it’s talking about. Rather prepaid phones which require no identification, can be bought in cash, and no credit.

    • James Fischetti

      Yeah I know. I’m just saying that if you do it with contracts there should be no big deal for prepaids.

    • Brook Merriman Davis

      It is a big deal. If you’re signing a contract with a phone company, clearly they need your information. There is no contract involved with a prepaid. I’ve bought them for the sole purpose of my kids watching Netflix and never even turning them on. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper than buying a tablet that will be broken within a month. Why the hell should there be any records kept of that. No contract, no personal info.

  • Old Iron

    We have the choice as to how much is known about are affairs. At this time it is mass marketing that comes to mind first and noisy government second.

  • Philip Wheeler

    Big brother keeps getting bigger. Why? “For your saftey”. Of course! Feel safer yet?

    • Dustin Robertson

      If we got enough like minded patriots to ban together we could stop a lot of this shit.

    • Imogen Foster

      We’re everywhere, Dustin

    • Dustin Robertson

      I know we are. The problem is trying to get a large enough group together at one time. We’ve Got a FB page Real Americans. (Sorry I can’t tag it for some reason Eric Robertson want to help) we have been trying for awhile but to no avail.

  • Robert Young

    Stevie Wayne got an opinion on this?

  • Jeremy Miller

    Those who are willing to give up their freedom in the name of safety deserve neither.

    • Kurt Sheppard

      You can at least give credit to ole Ben Franklin.

    • Jeremy Miller

      Sorry! Couldn’t remember who said itU0001f615

  • Kurt Sheppard

    Another Liberty to take in the name of stopping the Terrorist.

  • Frank Davis

    Because you can’t make a fake ID U0001f644

  • Serious Gamer

    if that happens in the US our country will surely follow 🙁

  • Brent Johnson

    In the Information Age, privacy is an anachronism

  • John Hansen

    Makes me want to buy a few now just because

  • Robert Jones

    It’s about control

  • Andy Ulrich

    Uhm…. wait, how are all those people complaining about voter ID requirements gonna get a burner phone?

  • Ryan Klinger

    I miss my razer,,

  • Ric McNamee

    we’ve had RICA (registration and interception of communications act) in South Africa for years. AFAIK its done absolutely nothing to curtail crime, but has caused endless hassles for the average user and mountains of paperwork and wasted manhours for the service providers. And if you want an unRICA’d sim, its child’s play to bullshit the system

  • Tyler Jordan Lashley.

    T E R R O R I S T S! ! ! ! ! ! !

  • Nick Thompson

    Won’t change a thing

  • Matthew Allen

    Oh I know the answer! I know the answer!

  • Tom Ciullo

    Schumer has tried this in the past.

  • Chris Crews

    So you must surrender your 4th amendment right and show ID to exercise the 1st amendment? The founders would tar and feather those with such notions.

  • Justin Crouch

    They could just use fake or stolen identities which most terrorists have so I don’t think it will slow them down at all just aggravate the American people by making it harder to get a phone

  • Officer

    This is normal in Australia, can’t buy a SIM card without providing ID. As a cop I’ve never even heard of of an incident of identity theft from a SIM purchase. But my ability to seize a drug dealers phone, get a call connection register, and use that to develop the web of his criminal associates is awesome. Crooks are lazy. Too lazy to even use a payphone. Now I can’t seize a phone from anyone, I have to reasonably suspect it provides evidence of an offence, and my suspicion can be tested in court where I risk losing my job or even prison time if I am found to be acting unlawfully.

    • McGillan

      @Officer Good for you. Still not interested.

  • JoeFreedom

    There is simply no reason to infringe on the 1st amendment with such a law.  It’s none of the government business who talks to who and what they say.  Period!  This government has grown tyrannical.

  • j

    The government doesn’t want to listen in on calls by someone who is too stoned to get off the couch. most of you are safe.

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  • he only way they can get a phone on their own is anonymous prepaid.

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