The right to bear a prepaid cellphone

Should we be required to show identification in order to buy an untrackable phone?

Published July 31, 2008 9:20PM (EDT)

I subscribe to a daily newsletter provided by the Center for Immigration Studies that obsessively tracks immigration-related headlines. I find the service quite useful, while making allowances for CIS's strong anti-immigration stance. Still, sometimes the headlines CIS gives news stories don't quite accurately represent the content.

Case in point: "Bill Adds Rules for Prepaid Cellphones," a Boston Globe article reporting on proposed legislation in Massachusetts that would require buyers of prepaid cellphones "to provide their names and other information for a statewide database to help police track down criminals," is relabeled "MA Activists Wary of Cell-phone Regulation." (In the parlance of CIS, "activists" can usually be translated as "pro-illegal-immigration advocates.")

True, the story does quote a spokesman for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition as saying that "the bill could have the unintended consequence of preventing immigrants without IDs from buying phones." But the bulk of the story has nothing to do with immigration, instead homing in on that always sensitive pressure point where individual freedom clashes with law enforcement priorities and corporate profit making.

The interesting thing about prepaid cellphones is that while the customers for such products tend toward the low-income side of the economic spectrum, the phones still represent a tasty profit sector for telecommunication companies.

The minutes typically cost more than packages purchased through conventional plans, and buyers have to pay full price for the phones since they're not committing to a contract ... Prepaid cellphones made up 17 percent of the wireless phone market nationally in the most recent figures available.

So, naturally, the telecommunications industry is opposed to anything that might make it harder to buy prepaid cellphones.

I'm curious as to where Salon readers stand on this issue. My own inner libertarian comes out to play when I hear about plans to make people pull out their driver's license in order to buy a prepaid cellphone. Our government has more than enough ways to track our movement and actions. I'm not sure law enforcement really requires greater powers, even if prepaid cellphones make life a little easier for drug dealers and illegal immigrants.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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