Tuesday, August 13, 2013

If I were a terrorist, I'd go shopping for a prepaid cellphone

 A more concise version of this essay was published in today's Albany Times Union as A Huge Gap in Our Security

Returning from a visit to Texas last month, I was called aside for some further attention at the Austin-Bergstrom airport. Perhaps the scanner revealed some anomaly of which I was unaware or maybe a mysterious algorithm randomly selects those to be singled out for more intensive scrutiny. Whatever the reason, I was patted down and my hands were tested for explosive residue.  

I am not complaining. I was in Manhattan on 9/11 and have no problem with TSA agents looking at every airline passenger, no matter how innocent he or she appears, as a possible terrorist.  But the experience got me thinking. If I were actually a terrorist, wouldn’t I know enough not to smuggle a weapon onto a plane at this point in history? Would I really be walking into a security checkpoint laden down with guns and bombs?
I certainly wouldn’t think I could show up at an airport with four friends carrying boxcutters and buy first class tickets with cash.  And I wouldn’t think I could conceal a bomb in my shoe like Richard Reid did on a Paris-Miami flight in 2001 nor in my underwear like Umar Abdulmutallab did on Christmas Day, 2009.  

Another thing I would not do is to plot any attacks with fast-talking strangers who promise to fix me up with a bomb or a missile.  Even if I am not the smartest would-be terrorist here in the Hudson Valley, I would have heard about the FBI schemes that entrapped an Albany imam in 2004 and four Newburgh muslims in 2009. Whatever the strength of these cases, (and both have been called into doubt) at the very least such obvious stings mean that serious terrorists are not going to take a chance on working with people who just show up out of nowhere.
I would want to talk and text with people I can really trust, either here in the US or overseas, who could help me to come up with a plot so horrific that the FBI hasn’t even imagined it. I’d need to talk with experts in this field, people whom I could completely trust. These might be relatives or friends I grew up with. I wouldn’t be stupid enough to contact such people with the Sprint phone for which I just signed a new two year contract. Nor would I use my own laptop to exchange friendly emails with well-known terrorist supporters like Anwar Al-Awlaki, as Major Nidal Hasan did before massacring 13 of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood. 
Thanks to Edward Snowden’s revelations, I would now know with absolute certainty that any electronic communication will be visible to my enemies at the NSA and CIA.  But of course, I was already 99% certain of this. 

 Jax and Clay rely on their prepaids

So there would be only one safe way for me and my America-hating friends to plan our next attack. We’d go to any one of several stores and check out the selection of prepaid cell phones. We’ve seen Law & Order and The Wire so we know that prepaids are ideal for any criminal enterprise. To be extra safe, we’ll buy a batch and throw them away after a single use. That way, even if the NSA picks up our terrorist chatter, they won’t be able to pin us down. 

The only problem is deciding which phones to buy.  The $59 Verizon at Walmart looks good and has the best network. We also like the AT&T GoPhone at Best Buy. That one offers a $10 International Feature package which gives each of us 250 minutes of international calling for 30 days. That should cover any last minute coordination with allies dodging drones over in Yemen or Pakistan.

No need to attract attention with multiple purchases. The smart move would be to buy a variety of brands in several stores: a BoostMobile and a TracPhone in a nearby mall, a couple of T-mobiles at a 7-11udsonHudsponH, a Verizon 4G LTE Mobile Hotpsot and a few more Netphones at a Walmart Supercenter on the other side of town.

By now I’ve convinced myself that real terrorists will have no trouble evading the multi-billion dollar US surveillance industry. But if that’s true, why haven’t our elected leaders done something about it? 

The Times Square bomber used a prepaid

Well, it turns out that Senator Schumer and Texas Republican John Cornyn did do something right after the 2010 arrest of Times Square bomber Faisal Shazad.  I was not surprised that it was Schumer who first took such action. He is my senator and I have long been impressed by his unflagging energy and attention to in-state needs, even if I have differed with him on other issues. And the fact that he partnered with one of the Senate’s most conservative members is also in keeping with his very pragmatic style.

  Senator Schumer had the right idea in 2010

On May 26, 2010 the two senators proposed the first-ever federal law requiring that buyers’ identities be recorded for all prepaid phones and SIM cards. In their press release Schumer and Cornyn pointed out that drug dealers, financial criminals and the 9-11 hijackers had all used prepaids, and that countries ranging from Germany to Indonesia already required registration for such phones. 

The linking of Shazad to a prepaid was a lucky break. He used a prepaid to buy the vehicle he tried to blow up in Times Square and evidently used the same phone to call family in Pakistan. If he had thrown away the phone after a single use, as Jax and Clay do on Sons of Anarchy, this link could not have been made. Even so, the bill addressed a real weakness in the fight against terrorism. 

But Schumer and Cornyn’s Senate Bill 3427 died quietly in the obscure Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee and never came to a vote. And three years later, prepaids are selling better than ever.

Why that happened I leave to your imagination. An unwillingness to inconvenience innocent people who rely on prepaid phones? A respect for journalists who use such phones to communicate with sources? A sympathy with secret lovers who want to avoid discovery?

A more likely reason for the quiet death of Senate Bill 3427 can be found in the corporate logos found on the array of prepaids at Walmart and other outlets. Prepaid cellphones and internet devices are a major growth sector for Verizon, AT&T and other companies as people’s income and credit ratings fall, and as pay phones vanish from our public places. And as a helpful clerk at Walmart told me, they are a real bargain and do away with the nuisance of signing up for long term contracts. She told me she was going to switch to a prepaid as soon as her Verizon contract expired.

If such phones are a major growth sector, does this mean that Verizon or AT&T lobbyists would oppose such a bill? Did they, in fact, make sure that SB 3427 never even came to a vote in committee? Would such minimal record-keeping be a significant enough expense for the corporations to block the bill? Well, I have made  inquiries to Senator Schumer’s office trying to find out why the bill died and look forward to their response. 

If SB3427 were ever meant to be taken seriously, it is odd that no companion bill was introduced in the House. Rep. Peter King, for one, would probably be happy to do a similar bipartisan sponsorship with any number of Democrats, and he’s on good terms with Senator Schumer. Our local congressmen Republican  Chris Gibson and Democrat Paul Tonko are also very good on bipartisan initiatives.But I can find no evidence that Schumer and Cornyn ever tried to promote such a House bill on prepaids. 

And why, after the fanfare of an announcement and joint press release by Schumer and Cornyn on May 10, 2010 was 3427 sent to such an obscure committee as Commerce, Science and Transportation? Both Cornyn and Schumer are on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security where they could have argued for their bill and neither are on the committee where it was sent.

As to Faisal Shazad, the would-be Times Square bomber whose arrest prompted Schumer’s and Cornyn’s call to arms – He is still referenced on Schumer’s site but only as the motivation for other initiatives by the senator which I support, such as a more reasonable allotment of Homeland Security funds to NYC and additional funding for port security. His only action on phones since 3427 died, however, was a May 2012 bill making it a federal crime to tamper with the registry of stolen phones. Admirable, but why is this more critical than depriving terrorists of an essential communications tool?

Senator Cornyn has also done good work along similar lines: more funding for port security in Texas, better training for first responders. Nothing on prepaid cellphones, though, or other easy ways to avoid attention from the NSA.

And after three years, the sale of prepaids may be on the verge of overtaking traditional contract-based phones. Prices are dropping and services increasing. Verizon’s 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot is selling well and offers an excellent option for making connections with foreign terrorists far from prying eyes and ears. And if you can afford to throw away the $99 device after a single use, so much the better.

As I said earlier, I am quite willing to accept a loss of privacy, as at airports, when it has a real chance of keeping us safer. What I fail to understand is why our elected leaders do not close this obvious gap in our national security. And, in fact, seem to be running as fast as possible away from any attempt to deal with the problem.