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Pre-Paid Phone "Security" Law Threatens to Make Black Lives Even Harder
by Color of Change
Thursday May 12th, 2016 9:37 PM
Politicians are using stereotypes and myths to make it harder to buy a cell phone. Laws based on racist beliefs only serve to reinforce racism and discrimination. Harsh voter ID requirements harm Black communities. Tell Representative Speier to retract her bill.
Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco/San Mateo)

At a time when cell phones serve as a conduit to everything from work schedules to the latest news to family, it would be a dire mistake to constrain access to them in a way that specifically harms Black communities. We’ve already seen time and time again how well-meaning policy causes unforeseen harm to Black folks. Now it’s about to happen again, as Congressional legislators are drafting a bill that would require retailers to request identification from anyone buying a prepaid cellphone or SIM card.1 Voter identification (ID) laws that disproportionately burdens and marginalizes Black communities create the framework for other discriminatory policies like this.2 And as it becomes more difficult for many Black communities to secure ID, this bill will further hinder the ability of many, especially the poor or elderly, to communicate and interact with society.3 We can’t allow that to happen.

There's no proof that cell phones increase crime, so why are lawmakers preemptively punishing people?

The bill, called Closing the Pre-Paid Mobile Device Security Gap Act of 2016, was proposed by House Representative Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) to help prevent acts of terror, drug trafficking, and modern-day slavery. Yet there is no substantial or definitive evidence that links the use of pre-paid, or “burner”, cell phones to increases in crime.4 On the contrary, research has shown that widespread cell phone use has contributed to an overall downward trend in crime nationally.5 Popular television shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire, and Weeds have embedded the connection between criminality and pre-paid phones in the public consciousness.6 But when politicians are unable to divorce fiction or racist stereotypes from reality, they create public policy that causes more harm than it prevents, especially for communities that are predominantly Black and poor.7

The harsher ID requirements are, the harder the lives of Black folks becomes. Enough is enough.

Pre-paid cell phones are predominantly used by the elderly, the poor, or those with concerns about their personal privacy. This goes doubly for Black communities, where cell phones are lifeline to everything from jobs to news to education and housing.8 Imposing a stringent requirement on identification to purchase pre-paid cell phones would further exacerbate the digital divide that marginalizes Black communities.9 Black people are three times as likely to not hold a valid ID as whites.10 And as racist voter ID laws spread around the nation, it becomes more and more difficult to obtain the sort of ID that this bill proposes.11 The more that Black people are disconnected from something as basic as access to communication and the internet, the more difficult it will be for us to protect our rights as citizens.

Will you stand with us to ensure that Black communities are not unjustly victimized?

Act Now:


1. "Text of the Closing the Pre-Paid Mobile Device Security Gap Act of 2016." GovTrack.Us, 03-23-2016.

2. "Voter ID laws a burden on poor, black Americans, research shows." The Guardian, 07-12-2012.

3. "Study: Voter ID laws hit minorities." Politico, 10-09-2014.

4. "Can Disposable “Burner” Cellphones Protect You From Government Surveillance?" Slate, 06-07-2013.

5. "New scholarship by Prof. Jonathan Klick links cell phone use to a decline in crime." University of Pennsylvania Law School, 12-17-2012.

6. "White People Commit the Most Heinous Crimes, So Why Is America Terrified of Black Men?" AlterNet, 05-13-2014.

7. "The Myth of Welfare and Drug Use." The Daily Beast, 08-30-2013.

8. "U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015." Pew Research Center, 04-01-2015.

9. "'Digital Divide': Pew Study Finds Black Adults Have Less Internet Access Than Whites." The International Business Times, 01-06-2014.

10. "Eric Holder says recent studies show 25 percent of African Americans, 8 percent of whites lack government-issued photo IDs." Politifact, 07-11-2012.

11. "This Is How Hard It Is To Get A Voter ID In Wisconsin." ThinkProgress, 04-02-2016.
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