New bill would outlaw prepaid 'burner phones'

A California legislator proposed a bill aimed at stopping "burner phones" that can be bought anonymously and used before being discarded.

Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a Democrat representing San Francisco and the Bay Area, introduced a bill that would require consumers to present identification when buying prepaid phones, SIM cards and other devices and force retailers to keep records of such purchases. Information would be verified using a credit or debit card, social security number, driver's license number "or other information that the Attorney General finds adequate" to supply a record of the transactions.

So-called burner phones were used in the 9/11 attacks as well as the November terrorism event in Paris, Speier said.

"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," she said in a prepared statement. "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."

Speier's bill comes amid an ongoing feud between Apple and federal law enforcement authorities over privacy and security concerns surrounding the iPhone. But The New York Times reported last week that the Paris attackers didn't rely heavily on encryption technology but rather on prepaid phones that were brand new and promptly discarded after the suspects exchanged communications over just a few activated minutes.

One recovered phone had a Belgian SIM card used only once to call an unidentified number in Belgium just once, the Times reported. "Everywhere they went, the attackers left behind their throwaway phones," according to the newspaper.

Interestingly, Sprint announced last month that it was discontinuing its PayLo program, which offered unlimited talking and texting on low-end phones. PayLo appealed primarily geared to those looking for burner phones, a Sprint executive said, and doesn't fit with Sprint's newfound strategy of targeting higher-ARPU users though its prepaid Virgin Mobile brand.

For more:
- see this NYT article
- see this press release

Related articles:
Report: Encryption wasn't key to carrying out Paris attacks
Sprint updates Virgin's prepaid pricing options, kills PayLo, Broadband2Go sub-brands
FBI: Maybe we don't need Apple's help in San Bernardino case after all