Prepaid Cell Phone ID: National Security Through Sales Clerks?

The Washington Post was first to break the story on the proposal of Senators Schumer and Cornyn to require prepaid cell phone purchasers to provide ID. Now, most of the media has been reporting in the same typical "objective" sense, with some grandstanding statements voiced by the Senators being "balanced" by privacy advocates. The final paragraph of these articles typically sums things up by pointing out that about 10-15 countries already require ID for prepaid cell phones. The thing that is appallingly missing is that no one in the mainstream press has stopped to do the minimal amount of research to see if prepaid cell phone registration has at all reduced crime or terrorism in any these countries, nor have they really questioned if it stands any chance of actually working. Not one person has stopped to question the core assumption of this proposal, and that is this: it requires that WE TRUST OUR NATIONAL SECURITY TO OUR POINT OF SALE CLERKS.

Maybe the problem is that this proposal is just so utterly absurd it defies comprehension and escapes rational thought. I actually decided to look into the Senators that proposed this, just to see what sort of proper backwater idiots we were dealing with here. To my great surprise, Senator Schumer actually scored a 1600 on his SATs.

I refuse to believe that this man actually thinks this proposal will work, or did any research into it or related fraud and crime prevention what-so-ever. There is no way someone who thinks about how this system might be subverted for more than 5 minutes can actually come away with the conclusion that "Oh yeah, if we just have Zeke over at the 7-11 there check people's IDs before buying these things, we'll totally be safer. Keeping our country safe from drug dealers and terrorists is completely within his minimum wage job description. Heck, he works the night shift, he's practically already a super hero!"


I am forced to reach the unpleasant conclusion that Senator Schumer really does not give a damn, and is far more interested in the political posturing gained by taking away yet more freedom in the name of security than he is at producing actual workable solutions.

I happen to know a few people who work in retail and have a direct experience with gift card fraud. Let me enumerate several ways criminals will subvert this, even in a world with unforgable ID:

  1. Pay crackheads (this is actually the #1 way gift card cash refund fraud happens in retail where ID is required)
  2. Bribe the clerks (this is #2, often used in conjunction with #1)
  3. Buy liquor for teenagers in exchange for a phone. They have ID, you have ID. Easy trade.
  4. Pickpocket IDs from people who look remotely like you, and pick a clerk who is not your ethnicity.
  5. Pay clerk A for previous transaction records, then go to clerk B with one of the following stories:
    • "I'm on a ticket. Here's a 'xerox' of it with 'my' drivers license number."
    • "I don't have my ID on me. It was lost/stolen/etc, but I've memorized 'my' SSN/DL#/etc."
    • "The phone is a gift for my teenage son. His birthday is today, please help me out. I've written down 'his' DL # and info."
    • "I'm travelling abroad, but lost my passport. Here's a 'photocopy' and/or a business ID."
  6. "My name is Felipe Calderon, I am President of Mexico. I would like to purchase 12,000 phones."
  7. Search on craiglist/ebay for used phones
  8. Steal phones from others

Now, say what you might about ID requirements at airports, but at least there we have people whose actual job it is to verify documents are genuine, and who are trained how to handle documents from all over the world. Convenience store clerks barely care enough to properly check ID of the underage who buy beer. They are hardly a viable defence against anything, let alone terrorists and hardened criminals.

Let's not kid around here, it's not criminals that this legislation will affect. It's the 17% of the population that have currently decided that they did not want to have to deal with the contracts, constant tracking, and marketing spam of postpaid phones.

This measure, like so many others, merely strips yet more freedoms from innocent people so that a couple of glory-mongering Senators can cynically exploit crisis for personal gain.

Abuse victims, alcoholics-anonymous/narc-anon members, anonymous STD test takers, divorces, teenagers, stalking victims, travellers, whistleblowers, police tipsters, and people who just want freedom from marketing calls all suffer for it.

Worse, what this means is that for the regular people is that there will be yet one more place for our identities to leak. It also means there is yet one more reason for our identities to be stolen. The more our politicians attempt to achieve security through identity, instead of developing actual security, the more valuable identity becomes as a commodity on the black market (which, in the case of the drug war, has infinite resources). Its time we addressed the root causes of these problems.

Finally, this proposal sets the precedent that true privacy for normal people is now criminalized, with no affect on those who are already criminals. It also sets the precedent that any sort of data device may require identification and authorization to use, because after all, anything that can transmit data is effectively a phone.

*Sigh*. Sometimes, there's just so much beauty in the world, I can't hardly stand it.

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