Do you really need a burner phone?

The short answer: Probably not. The longer answer: Keep reading.

There’s a lot of interest in mobile security coming out of the United States these days. I can see the smoke signals for it from across the Atlantic in the number of resources popping up online, Twitter hashtags, and the Analytics for pages on the topic that I’ve got running on different websites. One term that keeps popping up is “burner phone.” No, we’re not taking about a Samsung Galaxy Note 7. The “burner phone” carries with it all the connotations of drug dealing or other black market services, but it can have applicable uses for various activists, journalists and/or people trading in confidential/classified information. It’s just a pain in the ass, that’s all.

More folks seem to be interested as of late in some sort of pocket device that will somehow keep their communications super secret. No such thing exists. It would be easier to say that burners are entirely digital security mythology, but it’s more complicated then that. There are legitimate, applicable scenarios for a burner phone (or they wouldn’t be a thing). It’s also made more complicated by horrible write-ups about them, even on often decent sources of information about technology.

Now’s Probably the Time to Consider One of These Burner Phones

But do you really need a burner phone? Not the generalised “you” as in you people, but specifically you in particular. What are you trying to achieve? Most likely, you don’t need a burner phone.

Looking for some private space

If this is about basic privacy and concerns, like whether Big Brother is reading your text messages, then you can calm down a little bit. You do not require a burner phone. There are a lot of smartphone apps out there making bold promises, but for the sake of time and productivity, let’s just run with Signal (iOS | Android) for now, by Open Whisper Systems.

Without going into the long-form rationale, it comes down to strong encryption, open source code; well-supported non-beta technology; a clear threat-model approach to handling encryption keys and secure messages; and Signal has passed the the subpoena test with great results.

I don’t need to go into the specifics of how to master Signal here, because there are already some excellent guides on this topic. These are:

If you’re looking to have a private chat among contacts with whom you have no problems being connected, then this is going to be fine. That would extend to work colleagues, and discussing confidential work or personal matters in most scenarios. Set ‘disappearing messages’ so texts don’t even stay on one another’s devices. Block screen capturing and even exchange encrypted files through the Signal desktop client.

What if you don’t want to share your personal mobile number with your contacts?

There are, of course, a number of reasons for this. You may be a journalist and you don’t want your sources to know your personal number. You may want a temporary, project-based number. You may want to publish a contact number and not expose your personal digits on the open web. A second number can be good for controlling your business hours and keeping some contacts from getting too far into your personal life.

A burner phone would be overkill. You may want to get a second mobile for better work/life balance, or just use a mobile phone that can run two SIM cards at the same time. You can also get a data-only number, and use that to communicate. It’s also quite possible that an App for temporary numbers will work for you. Just make sure you’ve read the fine print and understand what you’re getting into.

A second work-related mobile is the better choice for the work-life firewall. Your second phone won’t have your personal social Apps on it, or be connected to your family photos and non-professional contacts. It can have specific work-related apps that you’d never use in your off time. If you’re number gets shared around and people send you anything nefarious that attacks your work phone, you’re other phone with all your personal data is not going to be exposed (and vice versa).

Other alternatives

Don’t use a mobile for these contacts: Set up anonymous online burner accounts which you and your contacts only access via a strong VPN provider or Tor Browser.

Use secure, disposable communications tools: Communicate with one another using Crytpocat or meet.jit.si, which won’t log your communications or require any revealing personal details about you or your contacts.

Go offline and off grid: The best OTR technology is meeting in person and speaking in a reasonable tone in a location where you won’t be overheard. Learn how to avoid physical surveillance, how to arrange a safe meeting with a contact, and find safe ways to get to your meeting. Instead of Google Maps, your app may look like one of these. This all may seem like a real faff. It’s still easier than managing a burner phone.

So you still need Burner phone

The reason you want a burner phone is fairly straight forward: You’re involved in a project and its success relies on you having a temporary number that will cease to be used at the end of the project and it is vital that this number not be associated with your identity or the identity of your contacts, and/or your contacts’ identities should not ever be associated with your identity. You may be able to use a single burner phone for this project, or you may need to replace it one or more times during it. You won’t ever use it again, though.

A burner is still a tracking device in your pocket. It is still collecting and relaying its holder’s location, contacts, call, texting and data records to every tower and network it touches. This kind of phone isn’t just a piece of equipment, it’s a lifestyle choice. Employing a burner the right way adds additional costs to your project and it also requires a greater investment in time spent managing it.

There are many myths around burner phones. The notion that a “dumb” phone makes a more less traceable burner is false. These phones are still transmitting data, recording your travels on various networks and sending a lot of information. They also don’t have the option of adding encryption on top of your communications.  The answer for which mobile you need is determined by what you want to do with it and through what channels you’re communicating.

Reasonable uses for a burner phone (including but not limited to):

  • Creating an anonymous connection to another contact’s burner device.
  • Dealing with sources who may be involved in criminal activity.
  • Dealing with sources who could be under increased monitoring.
  • Protecting your contacts if your own identity and background could pose a safety problem for them.
  • Distancing yourself from any of the meta data around the information that your phone will receive or send.
  • Attending a protest or going into an area where your device could be inspected or taken (or needs to be ditched).

Obtaining the mobile: Bought in person, ideally from a local shop that keeps fewer sales instead of a major retailer; device is unlocked and can accept a SIM from any provider; paid for in cash; purchase requires no data collection on the buyer to complete.

Obtaining a SIM card: Top-up, pay-as-you-go; Paid in cash, separately from the mobile; purchase and top-ups require no user data in the transaction.

Using your burner: Never carry your burner with your own phone; Never make calls with your burner from locations where you use your own phone; Never contact anyone you contact on your own phone with your burner; Install or store nothing that can be associated with your identity on the mobile (tougher than you think); Do not keep real names associated with contact numbers in your phone (especially if your contact is using a burner phone as well); Do not install anything not required for a specific need in your project.

Time is short: The longer you use a burner phone, the more it will be associated with you. Humans are predictable creatures of habit. You’re mobile may become associated with others who are being tracked or in events that take place, even if it is not immediately associated with you. Once the mobile number gains attention, it can be researched. How often was it used? Where? What other numbers has it called? When? Do the areas where it has been used have CCTV cameras? Your burner phone will likely have a lifespan of just a few weeks before it needs live up to its ‘burner’ street cred.

No part of your burner phone is reusable. Both the device, its SIM card and any data cards that were used need to be destroyed. The device and its SIM carry unique identifying numbers. Replacing one SIM with another in the same device just correlates both cards with that phone. Data cards are seldomly securely wiped well enough that a decent forensics specialist couldn’t beat. Get rid of it all. That was the point.

Before going too far down this road, ask: Is this trip really necessary?

Top featured image by DariuszSankowski

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