The arrests and release of five young Arab-American men who bought hundreds of cellphones in the Midwest show broader concerns about wireless technology in an era of global terrorism.
•In February, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security sent a bulletin to law enforcement agencies around the country warning that people who buy cellphones in bulk quantities could have links to terrorist organizations.
•British authorities said that mobile phones, or some other device using batteries, might have been part of the recently discovered suicide plot to mix liquids into an explosive chemical aboard airliners headed for the US.
•In Ohio and Michigan, the Arab men – all US citizens – were originally charged with terrorism-related offenses and money laundering after they were stopped last week with hundreds of cheap cellphones in their vehicles.
Nearly as cheap as the mundane box cutter and potentially just as dangerous, cellphones have become a tool of choice for those wanting to stay a step ahead of government wiretappers as well as for insurgents triggering bombs. Reselling them on the black market also has become a way of funding illicit activities.
In the Michigan case, local prosecutors backed off charges that one target for possible attack may have been the five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge connecting the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan.
"There is no imminent threat to the Mackinac Bridge. There is no information to indicate that the individuals arrested have any direct nexus to terrorism," the FBI's Detroit office said Monday.
On Tuesday, charges against two 20-year-old men, children of Muslim immigrants from Lebanon, arrested in Ohio also were dropped and they were released.
This was no surprise to the young mens' families, who said buying and selling cellphones for profit had been a homegrown business venture. They also suggested that ethnic profiling may have been a factor in the arrests, as was alleged in similar cases that occurred in Texas and California earlier this year.
Still, law-enforcement officials are wary. The men had bought the cellphones at retail stores such as Wal-Mart and Radio Shack. Mobile phones with prepaid calling time can sell for as little as $20 each. Many thousands have then been resold on the black market, earning enough profit to make a business worthwhile, they say. In some cases, the phone's battery, charger, and card holding air time are sold separately.
Selling such phones can be a way for terrorists to raise money as well as provide a means of communication that is very difficult to trace, US authorities say. So it's necessary to be able to use "roving wiretaps" under the USA Patriot Act to conduct counterterrorism and counterintelligence operations, federal law-enforcement officials say.
In Florida, for example, prosecutors and FBI agents investigating a cell of Colombian drug dealers had gotten 23 separate wiretaps against cell members and leaders, but failed to make a strong enough case because the suspects were constantly changing cellphones.
"Our people ultimately cracked the case when they got a roving wiretap that allowed them to continue surveillance as the cell members changed phones, and the suspects were ultimately arrested and convicted of distributing over 1,000 kilograms of cocaine," Kenneth Wainstein, US attorney for the District of Columbia, told a House judiciary subcommittee last year.
Meanwhile, a legal debate rages over "unlocking" cellphones. The technology allows cellphone users to, say, switch their cellphone to a different provider when they travel abroad by manipulating the internal software, thereby avoiding roaming and long-distance fees.
TracFone and other prepaid wireless service and phone providers claim copyright infringement and have sued companies that will unlock cellphones in some cases. Electronic privacy advocates say locking cellphones itself is illegal.
In March, a federal court in Florida issued a permanent injunction halting the unlocking of TracFone prepaid cellphones by a company that subsequently went out of business. Although similar cases are pending, courts have not ruled definitively on the issue.
The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration have been considering lifting the ban on certain electronic devices, including cellphones, aboard commercial aircraft.
This effort may have been slowed by the recent terrorist threat to airliners that was foiled by authorities in England.
On a British Airways flight from London to New York last week, a cellphone suddenly began ringing. When none of the passengers claimed the phone, the pilot turned the aircraft around and returned to Heathrow airport. Everybody was seven hours late to their destination.