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The Importance of Remembering to Use an Anonymous Burner Phone

Readers may recall that "burner" cell phones have been a recurring issue here. These are "prepaid" cell phones that can be purchased at stores like Walmart or Best Buy by the dozen — without any identification and then used totally anonymously. Perfect for criminals, terrorists, and philandering partners. In many other countries prepaid phones are allowed but only with identification at purchase time. People who travel overseas and try to buy SIM cards for their US cell phones to avoid high roaming charges are well of this and the need to bring a passport when buying SIMs in many countries.

In the US you need valid ID to buy Sudafed and related decongestants because they can be used to make crystal meth. You need an ID to buy large amounts of nail polish remover because it can be used to make explosives. But no ID is needed for cell phones. The lack of routine data on cellphones that would be available in other countries has resulted in DEA buying from AT&T access to the Hemisphere database that “covers every call that passes through an AT&T switch — not just those made by AT&T customers — and includes calls dating back 26 years”. So this policy does not protect privacy, it leads to more invasive law enforcement invasions of privacy.

For many years Tracfone was the largest provider of burner phones, perhaps it still is. Like all providers Tracfone requires some registration before a newly purchased burner can be used. But making up false names for dozens of burners can be such a pain so Tracfone allowed a shortcut for that market segment. See the last line in the signup form that used to be on Tracfone's website? "If you wish to skip this step, please click here"

(Formerly on Tracfone website)

But now Tracfone and others require you to at least make up a false name and address. Oh, for the good old days!

But "Affluenza" teen Ethan Couch, shown above, was apparently not as smart as your average drug dealer. He should have studied Breaking Bad more carefully! CNN reports that he was tracked down based on use of his cell phone. Ethan, making up false names and entering them on carriers' websites takes time, but it is worth it. Be thankful this is the USA. No one in the US requires ID to purchase even dozens of cell phones as opposed to Sudaphed and nail polish remover. Indeed, while Title VII of the USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005, P.L. 109-177 limits the amount of Sudafed you can purchase, there is no limit to how many cell phones you can buy at a time in the USA. Ethan, you should have stocked up on your way to Mexico!

But, Ethan, when you get back into a US prison you can be certain that genuine burner phones will be there for your use. They are the contraband phone technology of choice for incarcerated criminals! And since FCC is moving at a glacial pace in Docket 13-111, not to mention the petition filed by a large group of state corrections officials more than 6 years ago in July 2009, the burner phones you find there will probably work well. Even in isolated rural maximum security prisons the cell phone industry has convinced FCC than only a "silver bullet"-like quixotic technology yet to be finalized poses a low enough risk to their service that FCC could allow it to disrupt prisoners from running criminal enterprises or ordering murders of witnesses. (At least CTIA has removed from its website a video from a former high ranking official there that claimed, based on an incident in Brazil, that any prison cell phone jamming could disrupt cell phone services miles away!)

We sincerely hope that there is never a cellphone-activated IED attack on US soil. But we are certain that if this were to ever happen that the types of political forces that prompted the original PATRIOT Act would promptly require draconian limits on "burner"/prepaid phones. We hope that the FCC and the cellular industry have a rational contingency plan for doing this so that legitimate uses of prepaid phones by millions of users is not disrupted by the antisocial uses that the industry now condones. And if you have such a plan, why not phase it in now?


Lest you think I was too hard on Tracfone above, here is the first paragraph of Sean Penn's "El Chapo Speaks:A secret visit with the most wanted man in the world" from Rolling Stone:

It's September 28th, 2015. My head is swimming, labeling TracPhones (burners), one per contact, one per day, destroy, burn, buy, balancing levels of encryption, mirroring through Blackphones, anonymous e-mail addresses, unsent messages accessed in draft form. It's a clandestine horror show for the single most technologically illiterate man left standing.

(The spelling of "TracPhones" in the article says something about Rolling Stone's attention to detail which might also explain their mess with their UVA article on the fraternity party. But it is clear which carrier they are talking about.)

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