May 28 2010

Wanna buy a prepaid SIM card? “Papers, please!”

S. 3427, a bill introduced in the Senate this week by Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and John Cornyn (R-TX),  would require would require ID “verification” as a prerequite to buying a prepaid cell phone or SIM card.

The seller or reseller of the phone or SIM card would be required to collect your personal information (including name, address, date of birth, and for online sales your Social Security number) and all unique identifiers of the phone or SIM card including the including the EMEI or other serial number and the assigned phone number.

For in-person sales, you would have to show government-issued ID credentials in a form to be determined later by the Attorney General.  For online or other non-face-to-face sales, you would also have to provide “Any other personal identifying information that the Attorney General finds, by regulation, to be necessary for purposes of this section.”

The bill would place no limits on the amount or intrusiveness of the information the Attorney General could demand, as long as it is spelled out in regulations.  And there’s nothing in the bill to stop the AG from making the verification requirements so onerous as to amount to a de facto ban on online or mail order sales of prepaid SIM card or cell phones, as Ken Grunski —  president of, a leading US-based online source of prepaid SIM cards and cell phones for international travelers — immediately picked up on when we sent him a copy of the bill:

The level of verification that the bill requires is critical to e-commerce providers … because they can only verify an identity to a certain extent online. For example, if the bill just required that the billing address match the shipping address, we can do that easily. But if the bill requires a state or country issued identity card, we can’t do that online. You are essentially saying that the product can’t be sold online anymore, because you can’t verify the identity of the person making the purchase.

It really opens up all types of questions, like what types of impositions would that take on the e-commerce companies and why only SIM cards and prepaid cell phones? This could lead to regulation of all types of telecom products – or anything that puts out a transmission signal.

That’s not all.  The bill would also require the seller or reseller to report the sale (including the buyer’s personal information and the unique identifiers of the hardware) to the wireless carrier, and require the carrier to retain this data for at least 18 months or as long as the device remains in service.  And, “It shall be unlawful for any person who is not an authorized reseller to sell pre-paid mobile devices or SIM cards.” So you wouldn’t be allowed to sell your Tracfone or prepaid SIM to a friend, on eBay, or at a swap meet (all places that we’ve bought cell phones) unless you were authorized by the carrier and complied with these verification, data collection, and reporting rules.

The bill would inconvenience users of prepaid wireless service, and deprive the paperless poor of phone service, while doing nothing to prevent criminals or terrorists from obtaining anonymous telephone service. It would still be legal to open a postpaid landline or cell phone account or buy a phone without showing ID, whether in person or online.  A telephone service provider might demand a deposit — which a criminal could and would pay, although a legitimate customer might not be able to afford it — before opening an account from a customer without ID or a credit history.  But as a communications common carrier, they couldn’t legally refuse service to a cash customer without ID.

The bill wouldn’t appear to apply to Skype or any other VOIP service, so a criminal or terrorist could still make anonymous VOIP calls (with credit purchased e.g for anonymous Paypal credit) including from a cybercafe or from a smartphone or other mobile Internet access device.  The bill would prohibit unauthorized or unrecorded sales, but would allow unauthorized and unrecorded gifts of prepaid cell phones and SIM cards.  And it would remain possible for malefactors of all sports to obtain phone service or buy a phone or SIM using stolen identities.

As Grunski pointed out, “Someone could just as easily purchase SIM cards, prepaid cell phones and two-way radios anywhere and bring them into the United States to use here.” It would be difficult to restrict prepaid SIM card imports: How could anyone tell if the SIM in a phone carried by an arriving visitor is prepaid or postpaid?   More likely, if this bill passes, it would be followed by US efforts to establish an international “security” (read, “surveillance”) standard against sales of prepaid SIM cards or cell phones anywhere in the world.  Too many police states already restrict the sale of SIM cards or require elaborate ID verification. We’ve come to regard the free availability of prepaid SIM cards, without ID or other red tape, as one of the barometers of the real degree of freedom of speech in a country.  We don’t need the USA leading a race to the bottom on this issue.

The real consequences of this bill wouldn’t be to prevent terrorism or crime but to facilitate surveillance — effectively extending CALEA to the prepaid wireless phone industry — and guilt by association.  Anyone who wants to know where that leads need look no further than the mistaken arrest, detention, and deportation of Mohammed Haneef.

When he left the UK to take a position as a physician in Australia’s government health service, Dr. Haneef gave his UK SIM card, which had some remaining credit on it, to a cousin. A year later, based solely on what the police eventually admitted was a mistake about how the SIM card originally purchased by Dr. Haneef had been used, he was arrested, held without charges and interrogated for 12 days, and forced to leave Australia.  He was never charged with any crime, and after years of legal appeals (during which time he had, of course, lost his job in Australia), the Australian police admitted it had all been a “mistake” and his Australian visa and work permitted were reinstated.  All of this as a result of Dr, Haneef having been the original purchaser of record of the SIM card.

Even in the USA, the majority of new cell phone subscriptions are prepaid.  Worldwide, the majority of all phone numbers correspond to prepaid cell phone SIM cards.  Prepaid cellular phone service has made telecommunications financially accessible to billions of people who could never afford it before. Having a prepaid cell phone or SIM card is not, and should not be regarded as, deviant or suspicious.  Whether or not the NSA likes it, it’s the norm in the world, and increasingly the norm in the USA as well.  Along with Internet and VOIP anonymity and surveillance, prepaid cell phone anonymity and surveillance are central to the future of debates about our freedom to communicate without Big Brother listening in.

3 thoughts on “Wanna buy a prepaid SIM card? “Papers, please!”

  1. Within our lifetimes, technology will advance well beyond this stupidity. He’s getting a little old, but I’m sure even the braindead Schumer will live to see that…Doesn’t Schumer see how his idiocy is just breeding smarter terrorists and criminals???…*AND*, look at the 2 sponsors of this bill: A “democrat” from NY, & a “republican” from TX!….God, the ghost of BUSHPUPPET,JUNIOR rides again….

  2. Around a year ago, China implemented a new, real-name registration system for cell phone SIM cards. The idea was that anyone buying a new SIM card (in other words, a new number) for their mobile phone would have to provide their real name and state ID number on their registration documents. The government even forced smaller enterprises like newspaper stands to stop selling SIM cards until they had been trained in the new procedures. For an old number you already bought, the network stopped some functions (e.g. international calls) and force you to register your own name at their service center.

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