A coalition of more than 30 civil rights, immigrants’ rights, labor, social justice, community and interfaith organizations today urged members of the Suffolk County Legislature to oppose a bill that would mandate the creation and maintenance of a prepaid cell phone registry in Suffolk County.
I.R. 1266, which is scheduled to be voted on tomorrow, would require all potential prepaid cell phone purchasers to provide two forms of identification prior to buying a phone – representing an undue and unfair burden on consumers. It would establish a police database to store consumers’ personal information, violating personal privacy rights and Fourth Amendment guarantees, and compel retailers to gather and maintain personal data without any training, guidelines or support. Business owners who elect not to comply with the law risk fines of up to $1,000 or a year in jail.
The bill was amended last week to include a subpoena requirement for law enforcement seeking paper or electronic records directly from retailers. But this requirement is meaningless because police can still have full access, without a subpoena, to consumer records entered into the police database.
“The cell phone bill is being sold as essential to combating crime and terrorism, but there’s no evidence at all to suggest that it would work,” said Amol Sinha, director of the Suffolk County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “The amended version is a ruse. The subpoena requirement for paper records is nothing more than window-dressing, as law enforcement will still have unfettered access to innocent consumers’ personal information through the police department’s database. The door for abuse is wide open.”
In a letter sent today to Suffolk County legislators, the coalition says that I.R. 1266 erodes personal privacy without a sufficient justification or any protections for consumers or retailers, who are expected to comply without training, support or even consent. The collection of paper or electronic records, which I.R. 1266 requires, upsets established Fourth Amendment principles and represents an unjust intrusion of privacy.
“We oppose this legislation because it fails to strike an appropriate balance between effective law enforcement and the preservation of civil liberties of the people of Suffolk County,” the letter says.
The poor, the under-employed, and immigrant and minority Suffolk County residents turn to prepaid phones to maintain contact with family, work and friends, as do parents of teens who seek to limit their cell phone use and tourists and other guests to the county. Notably, victims of domestic violence often depend on prepaid phones’ anonymity to protect them when reporting crimes – a protection that the proposed legislation would deny, the letter says.
“Our most vulnerable communities will be hurt by this bill, because it presumes suspicion of criminal activity rather than innocence,” said Luis Valenzuela, director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance. “Most people who buy prepaid phones, including many immigrants, are innocent, law-abiding residents who rely on them as an inexpensive means of communication without a contract or credit check.”
Small businesses will also suffer undue hardship if the proposed legislation becomes law. Some may suffer revenue losses when they choose not to carry prepaid phones in the face of burdensome paperwork; others may choose to photocopy personal information, increasing the risk of identity theft and data manipulation.
Most significantly, the bill forces small business owners to collect and maintain accurate records of customers’ personal information, a collaboration between small business and law enforcement without consent, training or ongoing support.