On 22 March 2016, a group of individuals in Brussels set off a number of explosions inside the city’s airport and the Maalbeek metro station. Shortly after the attacks, the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) reported that the terrorists used Romanian prepaid SIM cards to communicate. Romania’s Prime minister has announced that the government will be debating a new law requiring the presentation of identification before purchasing prepaid cards. On the other side of the world, on March 25th, a new bill entered the U.S. Congress with a similar measure. The question very few people are asking is whether this is actually an effective method to stop criminal elements from communicating with one another.
The Aim of Requiring ID
The reason why successful crimes are successful is because of the anonymity of the criminal. Requiring a form of identification to purchase prepaid SIM cards threatens that aspect of anonymity for people who need “burner phones.” This theoretically makes it more difficult to perform some criminal acts and impossible to perform others. This measure as it is proposed in various countries aims to stop not only terrorism, but also drug dealing, prostitution, and various other illegal activities.
Why It Doesn’t Do Much
Requiring people to present an ID in order to purchase a prepaid SIM is useless without a present surveillance infrastructure. It doesn’t stop criminals from talking to each other, nor does it make what you say on the phone immediately attachable to you.
Someone could theoretically use the argument that they have given their phone to a stranger or that their phone was stolen, thereby absolving them of accusation under the law and presenting reasonable doubt as to the guilt of an accused individual. Real criminals, nonetheless, aren’t above actually stealing someone else’s phone, stealing another person’s identity, or otherwise faking their identity to get around this requirement. In the case of Romania, terrorists can simply purchase prepaid SIM cards from another country.
The one effect that requiring ID for prepaid SIM purchases will certainly have is the reduction of intimacy of the everyday law-abiding citizen. Although criminals do use burner phones to anonymize their conversations, they aren’t the only people who may wish to be anonymous. In the case of the U.S., while one could argue that the first provision in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights applies only to searches and seizures in private property, any federal law requiring identification to purchase a prepaid SIM card would also violate “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.” The proposed requirement would certainly establish a precedent for more surveillance, especially if the nation proposing it has a solid infrastructure for cellular phone tapping.
What Should Be Done?
It is highly unlikely that criminals could be caught beforehand if they have to use their IDs to purchase a SIM card. The GSM Association says as much in their November 2013 whitepaper, saying that “to date there has been no empirical evidence to indicate that mandating the registration of prepaid SIM users leads to a reduction in criminal activities.” In the case of Brussels, a failure of intelligence was blamed for the attacks. Often times, it is difficult to prevent high-profile crimes. Criminals will find a way to circumvent the law (it’s why we call them criminals). A solid intelligence network that takes a creative approach to technology (as in the case of the team that captured Pablo Escobar using voice recognition) has more of a chance of preventing crime than a surveillance network that struggles to look through millions of phone calls.
What do you think? Should people be required to present ID when purchasing prepaid SIM cards? Tell us in a comment!