New pre-paid phone legislation may compromise consumer privacy

Cesar Conda Contributor
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Millions of American consumers, from teenagers to senior citizens, have benefited greatly from the convenience, service, and affordability of prepaid wireless phones.  However, new legislation being considered in Washington would not only make it more expensive and difficult for people to buy prepaid phones, but potentially compromise their private information.

Introduced by Senators Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, the Prepaid Mobile Device Identification Act (S.3427) would require consumers to verify their name, address, and date of birth when they purchase a prepaid phone.  Phone sellers would be required to collect and record that personal information, and then pass it along to wireless phone companies who would store it for a year and half.

According to the bill’s authors, it would “connect the phone to a person” so that law enforcement can use that information to combat crime and terrorism; they cite the example of the recent Times Square Bomber, Faisal Shazad, who used a prepaid wireless phone in planning his attack.

Though the bill sounds good in theory, in practice it will provide little protection against the bad guys while making it difficult – if not impossible in some cases – for law-abiding citizens, especially low-income, minorities, and the elderly, to obtain mobile phones for completely legitimate purposes.

First of all, there is no way for retail store clerks or online phone sellers, who by the way are not trained to handle and protect sensitive personal information, to “verify” or validate that information supplied by customers.  Under the bill, if a customer doesn’t have a valid driver’s license, then they would be required to supply other identification, such as a passport or birth certificate.  Let’s get real: Does anyone carry their birth certificate around when they go shopping?

In fact, because of increased hassle and costs of collecting such information, some retailers – especially smaller businesses – might decide not to sell prepaid phones. And if the customer purchases the phone online, the legislation would require them to enter their Social Security number into the retailers website, which could result in more online identity theft.

Another problem:  The bill only requires identifying information from the purchasers of prepaid phones, not the actual end-users like the Times Square Bomber.  According to the wireless industry, 25% to 40% of prepaid cell phones are purchased as gifts, making it impossible to register the actual end-user. Criminals and terrorists hell bent on acquiring wireless phones to commit crimes or carry out attacks aren’t stupid enough to provide their real names; instead they will provide fictitious names “verified” by fake driver’s licenses or other identification, or even worse, the names of innocent people who might later be implicated in any crime connected to the phone.

S. 3427 could also compromise consumer privacy.  Over time, private data on millions of innocent phone purchasers would be collected and stored, including customers with a critical need for anonymity, like domestic violence victims and stalking victims.

We all know that corporate privacy practices aren’t totally fail safe, as evidenced by the recent breach of private email addresses by the Apple’s I-Pad.  And do you really trust an untrained teenage store clerk to safeguard your personal information?

Truth be told, this legislation will not make our nation safer because it does not regulate other devices and methods by which terrorists communicate, such as the hundreds of millions of wireless phones already in circulation, email accounts, laptops, social networking sites, etc.

In fact, S. 3427 could make communities less safe by reducing the availability of inexpensive prepaid phones, which make citizens and neighborhoods more secure as people are able to communicate with friends, neighbors, and the police to quickly report suspicious activity.

Wireless carriers already comply with the U.S.A. Patriot Act and work with law enforcement to provide telephone records under a subpoena. Putting a new and costly regulatory mandate on the producers, retailers and consumers of prepaid wireless phones will not make America safer.  (Note: The writer is a consultant for TracFone Wireless).

Cesar Conda is a Founding Principal and Executive Committee Member of Navigators Global LLC, a bipartisan government relations and strategic communications firm with offices in Washington, D.C., New York, and London.

Cesar Conda