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New proposal would require identification to buy prepaid cellphones

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010; 4:00 PM

A bipartisan pair of Senate leaders have introduced a first-of-its-kind bill aimed at stopping terrorist suspects such as the would-be Times Square bomber from hiding their identities by using prepaid cellphones to plot their attacks.

The legislation sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) would require buyers to present identification when purchasing a prepaid cellphone and require phone companies to keep the information on file, as they do with users of landline phones and subscription-based cellphones. The proposal would require the carriers to retain the data for 18 months after the phone's deactivation.

"This proposal is overdue because for years, terrorists, drug kingpins and gang members have stayed one step ahead of the law by using prepaid phones that are hard to trace," Schumer said.

Faisal Shahzad, the 30-year-old suspect in the Times Square plot, allegedly used a prepaid cellphone to arrange the purchase of a Nissan Pathfinder that he attempted to turn into a car bomb, the senators noted. He also used the phone to make a series of calls to Pakistan before the bomb attempt. Federal authorities caught a break when a number listed in the phone's call log matched one provided to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials months earlier, when Shahzad reentered the United States from Pakistan.

"But for that stroke of luck, authorities might never have been able to match the phone number" provided by the Pathfinder's seller, the lawmakers said in a news release.

There is no companion bill in the House. Schumer has spoken to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and believes the legislation has a good chance of winning administration support, according to a spokesman for the senator.

Civil liberties advocates have concerns about the proposal, saying there must be a role for anonymous communications in a free society. "They remain important for whistleblowers, battered spouses, reporters' sources," said James X. Dempsey, policy director for the Center for Democracy and Technology. And yet, he said, the space for such anonymous or pseudonymous communications has been narrowed. Pay phones, for example, have largely disappeared.

Privacy advocates worry that prepaid cellphone registration might be a step toward something even more worrisome in their view: identity registration to access the Internet. "I think everybody would admit in a free society there is a need for some ability to communicate without creating a full digital paper trail," Dempsey said. "We're just saying this proposal has to be considered in a broader context."

Countries such as Australia, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Norway, Switzerland, Thailand and South Africa require prepaid cellphone registration in an effort to prevent terrorism.

And in the United States, similar laws have been proposed in several states, including Texas, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

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