If you’ve already decided that you ‘need’ a burner phone, there are some considerations involved if you want to use it safely or semi-anonymously, but it will come down to tradecraft in the end. Like anything on this site, this post has been written from my perspective and is based on my experiences, knowledge and testing as a practitioner and enthusiast. If you know a better way to do something, be sure to let me know.
This post is the set-up part of a burner phone series that I’m throwing out there, which seeks to dislodge a lot of the misconceptions about their use, functionality and privacy.
Getting Started – What You’ll Need
If you buy an unlocked simple phone (candy bar or flip) some place, many (if not most) US based carriers are not likely to support it. Unfortunately, universally compatible simple phones are becoming fewer and further between. I have purchased and tested several of these over the years, each claiming that it was compatible with the same bands as my hopeful pre-paid providers, and each ending in failure. This is not to say that it cannot be done, but that the advantages to having a “dumb phone” with my application are pretty much nil.
Thus, these days your sub $200 burner phones are mostly inexpensive Androids, which I’m guessing is because the carriers are trying to diversify their income avenues through the collection and sales of your data. This become evident later, as you look at your options for activating service.
If you really think that you need a burner phone, I would recommend the following steps:
- Buy a EMF Bag on Amazon: The purchase of a bag does not necessarily indicate intent. I’ve used a wide range of these from Silent Pocket to Mission Darkness and like them both but for different reasons. Silent Pocket is for privacy and fits well in a suit pocket where Mission Darkness feels more like an intel/evidence bag. This will come in later.
- Buy an Unlocked Phone in cash: I had a friend walk into a best buy for me, and purchase this with cash while traveling out of town. I did recommend that they wear a hat, but I’m not sure that it matters or that they did.
- Buy a pre-paid Sim starter pack: At least at the time of this writing, Mint mobile is one of the cheapest options for limited use; such as receiving texts here or there for a month to validate creation of new accounts. They have this under a promotional program, where they provide service on a trial basis, and hope that you will add minutes and data at the end of the trial.
Ok, so these are pretty much all of the materials you will need but the instructions on how to use it safely are pretty important because if you mess this up, then you might as well not have wasted the time or money to get this far.
Set up & Precautions
If this is a consideration with your application, know that if you become a person of interest for any reason, law enforcement and intelligence agencies are going to be looking for something which establishes this device’s presence in your immediate vicinity, by your permanent device, at your residence, in your vehicle, near known affiliates, etc. This is called ‘device duality’ and for them, the data required to establish this can be obtained with a request out to wireless service providers and stingray operators in your area. By the same token, a professional OSINT Analyst will be able to establish this as well but through meta-data, tagging and the like, instead of request to a carrier. In a way, it’s easier for either to establish your location and device duality in the rural areas where location accuracy is lower, versus being in an apartment building or high population suburb. According to googles article on the matter (LINK):
- GPS: 1,203 sqft
- Near-by wifi (not connected): 100 sqft
- Cell Tower: 5,000 sqft
Here is a link to great presentation by Matthew Cole at Blackhat, on CIA’s failures in the same category. I highly recommend that you check this video out if you are interested in the burner phone topic.
Getting back to your set up. When you obtain your phone, before you even power on, I normally throw some black electrical tape on both cameras (or at least the selfie-cam), insert the sim card and throw it strait into the EMF bag. It will not leave this bag if any of the following conditions are true:
- You are near your daily driver phone – and it’s not in a similar bag.
- You are near your friends or family.
- You are near your vehicle.
- You are in your home or on your home wifi.
Next, head to a place with free wifi (not your home) because you’re going to need this to finish your setup. The phone will likely need to run some updates and you will need internet connectivity to activate your sim through pre-paid carrier. I’ve used community libraries and coffee shops for this in the recent past.
I would also recommend playing around with the location services and app permissions, but it’s my understanding that Google Android treats these as ‘preferences’ rather than ‘rules’. At the end of the day, behavior is your first line of defense, not your ‘settings’.
Depending on the carrier, activating the sim can be a bit of a pain, as they will [strongly] encourage you to download their application. One quick rerad through the permission will raise a lot of red flags and it could prevent you from using new SIM anonymously in the future. Instead, you could set up a google account & email from your phone while connected to free wifi, then complete the set up online (from any device) to activate your SIM.
With this, you should be ready to use your pre-paid phone semi-anonymously.
With the above complete, you should be set up to use your new burner phone. Just remember that this does not make you anonymous and does not mean that you cannot be tracked by an adversary. Remember to ask yourself whether or not you ‘need’ a burner phone, and consider whether or not your use case fits within your personal threat assessment.