This week, Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and John Cornyn (R-TX) announced long overdue legislation that would stop terrorists from keeping their identities hidden from law enforcement by using prepaid cell phones to plot and coordinate their attacks.
The proposal follows an unsealed criminal complaint which alleged that Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber, used a prepaid cell phone to plan and carry out his terrorist attack. The phone was used to communicate with confederates in Pakistan and to arrange the purchase of the vehicle that would later be stuffed with a crude bomb and parked in Times Square.
Currently, prepaid "burner" phones can be purchased and activated without signing a contract, providing identification, or undergoing a credit check; providing virtual anonymity for those who get their hands on the devices.
While Shahzad may be the most recent example of terrorists using these "burner" phones, he is certainly not the first. As Senator Schumer explained in announcing the intended crackdown:
"[prepaid cell phones] have become the communication device of choice for terrorists, drug lords, and gang members interested in masking their identities."
The hijackers that carried out the September 11 attacks used burners to communicate for months prior to the terrorist attacks. In a 2002 speech, FBI Director Robert Mueller cited the plotters' use of burners to show that they had "managed to exploit loopholes and vulnerabilities in our systems, to stay out of sight, and to not let anyone know what they were up to beyond a very closed circle."
Under the new proposal, buyers of prepaid cell phones would be required to present identification at the point of sale, and phone companies would have to keep the buyers' information on file as they already do with users of landline phones and subscription-based cell phones. Policies such as the one proposed are already in effect in Australia, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Norway, Switzerland, Thailand and South Africa, where buyers of burners much register.
According to the Washington Post, there is no companion bill in the House, however it is expected that the bill would receive support from the Obama administration.