Cell Phones Ideal for Crime


Disposable phones, as anyone who’s watched the addictive HBO police drama The Wire may know, are ideal for criminals. They can buy the phones anonymously, use them for a week or so and throw them away before police figure out the number, much less get authorization to tap the phones.


Countries around the world are trying to take technology out of criminals’ hands, using methods that range from abolishing the anonymity of pre-paid mobile phones to jamming phone signals in prisons, where some of those phones get heavy use. The authorities say the measures will fight crime. Critics warn of privacy invasion, and the wireless industry says jamming isn’t the only way to keep phones out of inmates’ cells.

Mexico, Greece and South Africa are the latest countries to require those who buy pre-paid mobile phones to show identification and be entered in a national register. South African law, which came into effect last month, requires sellers to record the buyer’s name, address, phone number, passport number, and to check their passports and look at a bill to confirm the address. Greece also has required buyers to register their identities as of last month. Mexico’s law, in effect since February, added a clause that stipulates that identities of all prepaid mobile phone users will be entered in a national register that will store call logs, text messages and voice messages for one year. The information will be available by court order.

Smugglers, Kidnapers Benefit

Authorities said that fighting crime was their main reason for making the change. “The types of criminals who prefer prepaid phones include drug dealers, immigrant smugglers and blackmailers,” said Greek communications minister Evripidis Stylianidis. Prepaid phones were also used in an illegal wiretapping operation that included the phones of  the prime minister and other senior officials during the Athens Olympics in 2004. In Mexico, a country riddled with kidnappings, extortion and drug cartel violence, the law’s sponsors noted that around 700 criminals groups were using such phones to arrange extortion and kidnap ransom payments.

Other countries are thinking along the same lines. Kenyan authorities are mulling similar laws. UK officials late last year said they were planning to require photo identification for pre-paid phones, and to create a national registry as early as next year. In the US, registration is on the radar so far only at the state level – a Missouri state representative earlier this year proposed a bill that would require anyone buying six or more pre-paid phones to show a photo ID.

Why this is coming up now – nearly a decade since mobile phones have become de rigueur  for many people worldwide – is because there’s a time lag between what criminals come up with and how authorities respond, said an expert on technology and crime.

Criminals Adapt to Tech

“Criminals have always exploited technology. The most competent criminals are very adaptive, and will use new technologies to their advantage,” said Peter Grabosky, a professor at Australian National University by e-mail. “Governments tend to be reactive, and wait until problems arise before addressing them. In most democratic societies, the legislative process is rather cumbersome.”

Governments’ laissez-faire approach to technology is to be expected, he added. “A ‘hands off’ or ‘light touch’ approach to regulation may be more conducive to full commercial development of emerging technologies, with attending social and economic benefits,” he said.

The new rules haven’t been without critics. UK officials in the Home Office warned the Times last year that the database plan is impractical and potentially unlawful. Privacy advocates aren’t keen on what they see as the “Big Brother” aspect of such databases.

The wireless industry has also objected to another government attempt to rein in technology – rendering mobile phones useless in prisons by jamming the phone signals. Prisoners worldwide are using smuggled phones to continue their crimes, from running illicit businesses or gangs to ordering hits on witnesses slated to testify against them. In the US, prison authorities have confiscated tens of thousands of phones from inmates in recent years – 3,000 in California alone last year.

The US may soon join India, New Zealand, Ireland and other countries that allow phone-jamming in their prisons. A Senate bill, the Safe Prisons Communications Act, was recently approved by committee and may come to a vote before the end of the year.

While CTIA, an international non-profit that represents wireless providers, agrees completely with officials on the need to stop prisoners from using mobile phones, they disagree with jamming. They advocate alternatives to jammers, such as cell detection, a way to pinpoint illicit phones so prison guards can root the phones out. Managed access, another alternative, involves a bay station that allows only certain authorized phone numbers to use the signal.

Industry Suggests Alternatives

“Jamming sounds appealing – it knocks out all communications,” said CTIA director of regulatory affairs Brian Josef in a telephone interview.  He advocates other measures.  “With the cell detection and managed access, it gives the corrections community and their internal investigations arm the ability to investigate. They can go out and get a legal wiretap, figure out who’s talking to whom, (and) the network of criminals involved.”

Josef noted that the DEA was able to charge 24 people in Maryland in April – including four allegedly corrupt prison employees – after a wiretap on prison phones revealed evidence of drug trafficking and extortion inside and outside the prisons.

“Jammers are only dealing with the symptom,” he said. “We also think you can deal with the source of the problem, by increasing and strengthening the criminal penalties for people who are supplying those devices. Having strong rules on the books would be a deterrent to getting those devices smuggled in.”

--Beth Kampschror