Today's mobile phone terror scare story has the virtue of being real, but unfortunately only sort of. An Associated Press item (free registration required) cites Swiss newspaper reports that 'anonymous' mobile phone cards have been linked by Swiss investigators to Al Qaeda.
A good trick, if the card is really anonymous, but you can see - and if you can't, we shall tell - how anonymity can be compromised. 'Pay as you go' mobile phone systems are fairly common, ones that you can use internationally less so (but still quite common), and ones you can buy for cash, no questions asked, are rather uncommon. But you can get them in Switzerland, hence the claimed attraction of the country's kiosks to terrorist quartermasters.
But one might speculate that terrorists smart enough to know this might also be smart enough to conclude that the CIA is also smart enough to know this. So, if a Swiss pay as you go system is being used around Europe, it's probably safe enough for the user, because the user is likely to be Swiss, or indeed an American tourist (of which more shortly). But if a Swiss pay as you go system turned up in operation in, say, Pakistan, then it is to be expected that alert lights will go off, the phone's location will be tracked, and the security services will move in. American tourists using Swiss pay as you go systems in Pakistan, you have been warned.
A terrorist thinking straight would surely not do such a thing, but we accept that people do make mistakes. The Swiss papers, reports AP, speculated at a spokeswoman that the Swiss connection might have led to the arrest of Al Qaeda leading light Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the spokeswoman declined to comment.
But whether or not that's how he got pinched, it's a possibility the thinking terrorist will surely consider when planning future activities, and the Swiss Federal Prosecutor's Office describes Switzerland as "a real paradise" for terrorists, drug dealers and sundry criminals. And war criminals hoarding Nazi gold? No, she doesn't seem to have mentioned this.
Rewind, though - how hard is it to get an anonymous mobile phone? Here in the UK many of these are in use, by what we call "teenagers." Hunt around for "prepaid SIM" (Subscriber Identity Module) and you will find numerous outfits in the US selling such things, the point being that for $99.95 or so US citizens traveling abroad can set themselves up with an operational phone system they can use without having to be worried about the bills. Which is both sensible and legal.
We're particularly taken with Telestial, a company that clearly loves its business and does its homework. Note that on this page, which is a history of prepaid SIMs, a notorious soft-on-terror nation is revealed as having twigged the potential early:
"The French secret service objected to the fact that there were unregistered phone numbers. Further they believed that the product would be abused by terrorists and other criminals. Consequently, you have to present a valid ID card and register your name, address etc, when you buy a Mobicarte."
So in France it's now about as hard as buying lethal weaponry.
Telestial sells pre-paid SIMs for a very wide range of countries, and its explanation of "Why prepaid?" points out that you avoid the contracts, the credit check, the monthly bill, and the wait. Which of course you can. You can't avoid giving a delivery address and credit card details either here or in the numerous other online international prepaid SIM sales sites, but these are not major obstacles for your thinking international criminal. Credit cards and addresses can become invalid, and the discerning terrorist will use a difficult to trace mobile for a specific operation, then discard it for another. We very much doubt that it is absolutely impossible to get a cash, no-ID SIM rated for international in somewhere other than Switzerland, and no doubt somebody will shortly tell us where, and how.
No doubt also the Swiss will at some point soon abandon anonymity, but that will make no great difference - if anything, it will merely impede the capture of the more stupid class of terrorist. Eliminating phones whose subscribers can't be readily traced is a much bigger hill to climb, given that pre-paid is an important sales category for the networks, and is therefore a problem that exists everywhere. If indeed you could call it a problem. Your call, Feds. ®