Po­lice push photo ID re­quire­ment for pre­paid phone cards

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Jim McElhatton

Vic­tims in Chicago Po­lice De­tec­tive Ti­mothy J. Mur­phy’s homi­cide cases were leav­ing be­hind im­por­tant clues — cell phones show­ing in­com­ing calls just be­fore the time of death.

But in­creas­ingly the calls led to num­bers di­aled by pre­paid cell­phone users and that’s a dead end, De­tec­tive Mur­phy ex­plained in a let­ter sent nearly two years ago to state and fed­eral law­mak­ers, be­cause phone com­pa­nies usu­ally don’t main­tain the iden­ti­ties of the phone buy­ers.

“In the last sev­eral months, many of my homi­cide in­ves­ti­ga­tions have been hin­dered due to the ma­jor ob­struc­tion that ‘pre­pay’ or ‘pay as you go’ cel­lu­lar tele­phones that lit­ter the mar­ket cause,” he wrote. “I am seek­ing your as­sis­tance in in­tro­duc­ing leg­is­la­tion to reg­u­late this loophole.” He’s still wait­ing. “No­body did any­thing,” the eightyear vet­eran of the city’s homi­cide squad said in a phone in­ter­view two weeks ago.

While no bills are pend­ing in Congress, leg­is­la­tion re­quir­ing photo iden­ti­fi­ca­tion for pre­paid-phone pur­chases is be­gin­ning to sur­face in state­houses na­tion­wide. The Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures is fol­low­ing bills in Michi­gan and Ge­or­gia. Law­mak­ers in New Jer­sey, Texas and Penn­syl­va­nia also have con­sid­ered leg­is­la­tion.

“I just went out and got a new cell phone,” said Neil Co­hen, a Demo­cratic state assem­bly­man spon­sor­ing a pend­ing bill in New Jer­sey. “If I’ve got to pro­duce a photo ID, I don’t think there should be a dis­tinc­tion for a pre­paid phone.”

But pri­vacy ex­perts and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions and re­tail groups ques­tion whether the bills will do any­thing to catch crim­i­nals.

“We’ve had some ob­vi­ous con­cerns,” said Joe Far­ren, spokesman for Wash­ing­ton-based CTIA, the Wire­less As­so­ci­a­tion.

“You’ve got 255 mil­lion wire­less phones in cir­cu­la­tion right now. It’s go­ing to be ter­ri­bly dif­fi­cult to prove whether some­one is pro­vid­ing false iden­ti­fi­ca­tion,” Mr. Far­ren said, adding that wire­less-phone car­ri­ers “work very closely” with law-en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties.

“The over­whelm­ing num­ber of wire­taps are on wire­less lines,” he said.

Ver­i­zon Wire­less spokesman John John­son said the com­pany does ask for photo iden­ti­fi­ca­tion when a cus­tomer wants to buy a pre­paid cell phone, but Ver­i­zon doesn’t re­tain those records.

“It’s only to ver­ify that the per­son is who he or she says,” said Mr. John­son.

Pri­vacy ex­pert Kather­ine Al- brecht said such leg­is­la­tion raises fears about gov­ern­ment in­tru­sion on per­sonal pri­vacy. She also said that some peo­ple may need to use anony­mous phone lines, in­clud­ing vic­tims of stalk­ing.

“There are some se­ri­ous rea­sons you would want that abil­ity,” she said.

Larry Frankel, state leg­isla­tive coun­sel at the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union in Wash­ing­ton, said the bills set a prece­dent for law­mak­ers to re­quire iden­ti­fi­ca­tion to pur­chase other prod­ucts.

“There are peo­ple who do bad things with ev­ery prod­uct,” Mr. Frankel said. “What’s the next item go­ing to be?”

But Penn­syl­va­nia Rep. Ed­die Day Pashin­ski, a Demo­crat, said his bill only pro­vides law-en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties with much needed crime­fight­ing tool.

“The drug deal­ers are very smart, and they’ll get some­one else to pur­chase the phones, but at least that still gives law en­force­ment a per­son to talk to,” said Mr. Pashin­ski, whose pend­ing bill would re­quire two forms of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion to buy pre­paid cell phones with cash.

“The re­tail­ers and some of the phone com­pa­nies are def­i­nitely go­ing to put up a fight,” he said.

James Pasco, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Fra­ter­nal Or­der of Po­lice (FOP), the na­tion’s largest law-en­force­ment union, said dif­fi­culty track­ing down in­for­ma­tion on pre­paid users can de­lay or even thwart in­ves­ti­ga­tions “from street-level drug deal­ers right up to ter­ror­ists.”

In 2006, the FBI and the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity is­sued na­tion­wide bul­letins telling po­lice agen­cies to be on the look out for bulk pur­chases of pre­paid cell phones. Au­thor­i­ties cited con­cern about pos­si­ble ter­ror­ism links.

“If there’s leg­is­la­tion out there that would han­dle the prob­lem fairly, I think we would sup­port it,” Mr. Pasco said.

De­tec­tive Mur­phy said he sent let­ters to the FOP and state and fed­eral law­mak­ers, in­clud­ing pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Sen. Barack Obama, Illi­nois Demo­crat, who for­warded it to the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion, say­ing he was “trou­bled by the is­sues raised by De­tec­tive Mur­phy.”

But a re­sponse from the FCC’s Wire­less Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Bureau told the de­tec­tive what he al­ready knew: “Wire­less car­ri­ers typ­i­cally do not re­ceive or ob­tain de­tailed sub­scriber in­for­ma­tion from pre­paid cus­tomers.”

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