Monday, July 14, 2008

Cell Phone Trafficking

Stories like this could be used to defend warrantless wiretaps or even granting retroactive immunity to Telecom providers. This is very misleading--we allow data mining in order to catch people who use "throwaway" phones, and rightly so. What we forget is that the activities of our intelligence agencies should ALWAYS be under scrutiny and that the rights of Americans should never be thrown away.
For less than $15, you can buy a cell phone loaded with minutes. You can buy more as you go whenever those minutes run out. Best of all, you aren't locked into a long-term contract. But in South Florida, New York, California, Georgia, Texas and elsewhere, traffickers have figured out they can make big profits by purchasing thousands of these low-cost phones and tweaking the software so that calls can be made on any cell network. The altered phones are then sold all over the world - costing the phone companies tens of millions of dollars.

Some traffickers employ dozens of people full-time as "runners" to buy the phones at retail stores so they can later be hacked into and resold. The problem for the phone companies is that they often sell the phones at a loss, instead making their money when customers have to buy additional minutes from them - a guaranteed profit once the phone is sold. But the phone companies have no guarantee that customers will buy minutes from them after the phones are hacked or shipped to a far-off country.

This is probably the part that concerns intelligence agencies throughout the world, not just our own. There is always going to be a belief that "...if we could just listen to what they're saying!" is the end-all, be-all of intelligence gathering. This is true in the case of that rare undisciplined, chatty, gossipy terrorist. What you get from listening to conversations between people who practice good operational security (OPSEC) is next to nothing, except for cover terms and a few tics here and there. It would be of value to correlate what they say with what you know they have done or intend to do--that would help you crack their cover terms, if you were patient enough to try. Sometimes the most important aspect of collecting what they say is not what they say--but who they say it to and then who that person goes out and calls after the conversation is over.

That's why data mining is important. I will defend the right of our intelligence agencies to comb through the vast amounts of data in order to find associations and links to other pieces of data, but I will only do so if there is rigorous oversight to prevent abuse. I will only do so if there is a requirement that a FISA court will provide oversight if the actual conversations are intercepted AFTER the data mining reveals a legitimate reason for doing so. As it currently stands, we've forgotten to emphasize the oversight and compliance in the rush to save us from an unspecified calamity.

This article goes on to talk about what's going on in the unlocked cell phone world--a world long since past the moment when we should have shut it down. A deadlocked Congress and an administration that can't be bothered to put competent people in charge of agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Communications Commission are to blame for allowing these egregious loopholes to remain open:
It's technically not illegal to unlock the software on your personal cell phone - but the companies are hoping to put a stop to traffickers that they say are siphoning away profits. Led by Miami-based TracFone Wireless Inc., makers of the low-cost prepaid cell phones are suing traffickers in federal courts around the country. One such lawsuit resulted in a criminal conviction in Houston when a man disobeyed a court order by refusing to stop selling the phones.

"There is a lot of profit in it," said James Baldinger, a West Palm Beach attorney with the Carlton Fields firm who represents TracFone. "Even as we continue to shut people down, we do find there are people still engaged in it. TracFone is going to keep going after them."

These phones are typically sold by traffickers for between $40 and $60 above the discounted TracFone price - and they are frequently marketed in lots of 10,000 or more. Web sites catering to these dealers boast about having huge numbers of unlocked cell phones.

You can't have tens or hundreds of thousands of unlocked cell phones floating around--it takes money to sustain cellular telephone networks and the added burden of all of that traffic puts strain on a system that should be used by the people who pay for the service. Beyond being an issue for intelligence gathering, simple criminal activity flourishes with calls that are not tracked or billed.

The US has been quite successful in keeping out high powered cordless phones--devices which look and behave like cellular telephones but use base stations and powerful signals that give the user the ability to have a personal phone or a closed network of handsets for communication. In many countries, users of these phones have 15 miles or more of range and can use them just like a cell phone or call dozens of other people with the same handset tied to the same base station. If we can stop this technology, why can't we stop the unlocking of throwaway cell phones?

For some reason, the telecom providers lobbied hard for immunity rather than regulations that would shut down the throwaway cell phone market. I guess they fear lawsuits more than having their networks used by thieves.

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