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Disposable cell phones spur debates

The industry scrambles to defend a product that hasn't made it into the United States yet, but is a target of the nation's top crime fighters as they crack down on terrorism.

Hop-On Wireless Chief Executive Peter Michaels and the rest of the nascent disposable cell phone industry are scrambling to defend a product that hasn't made it into the United States yet, but is a target of the nation's top crime fighters as they crack down on terrorism.

During the weekend, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller indicated that disposable phones are one of the reasons they want to give the U.S. law enforcement community more legal power to fight terrorism, using techniques such as tapping phones. Privacy vs. safety

Disposable cell phones come pre-loaded with a finite number of calling minutes, and are meant to be used, then tossed in the trash. The phones themselves are stripped-down versions of their more expensive brethren--offering in the case of some phones just the ability to make a single phone call. Voice mail and other amenities standard for most wireless phones are not part of the disposable phone's package of services.

Whether disposable phones were used to help orchestrate Tuesday's attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center hasn't been made public. But the mere mention of them in connection with the Tuesday attacks has the industry scrambling to explain the safeguards that retail outlets like Target, Kmart and 7-Eleven might be taking in mid-October when they begin selling these phones.

Ashcroft thinks law enforcement officials should be able to eavesdrop on any phone used by a suspect in a foreign intelligence case, even without a wiretap warrant signed by a judge. The nation's most powerful law enforcement officials then singled out disposable cell phones, saying on the CBS television show "Face the Nation" that the current set of wiretap regulations are useless if terrorists and criminals use these phones.

"It simply doesn't make sense to have the surveillance authority associated with the hardware, or with the phone, instead of the person or the terrorist," Ashcroft said on the Sunday morning news program.

A series of proposed laws backed by Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller are expected to reach Capital Hill by week's end.

Michaels said calling cards are more of a threat to U.S. security than disposable phones.

The phones also aren't as anonymous as Ashcroft and other government officials think, he said. When someone buys a Hop-On phone, they are asked to provide a name and address, ostensibly so the company can contact them when they set up a program to recycle these devices.

Michaels also said the phones that he sells only work in the United States, making it impossible for a foreign terrorist to reach someone outside the country.

Also, calls made from these phones can be tracked through phone logs, he said.

"If Ashcroft said disposable phones aren't good for our country, how about free e-mail, or calling cards?" Michaels said. "If someone really wants to hide from the government, they will use a calling card at a pay phone."

A representative from Dieceland Technologies, a New Jersey-based company that has inked a distribution deal for its $10 talk-and-toss phone with GE Capital, the investment arm of General Electric, did not return an e-mail seeking comment.

The phones will sell for $30 and will be offered in less than a month, said Michaels.

Wireless analysts like Paul Dittner, of analyst firm Gartner, think they could catch on in the United States, but among the set of people "with poor credit ratings, no credit histories or transient lifestyles, or people such as seniors and vacationers who simply want to have a phone available for emergencies."