Sick of the NSA tracking you using your phone’s positioning coordinates? Or do you just want an anonymous phone to conduct personal affairs? Either way, prepaid phones known colloquially as “burners” can provide you with partial privacy. Even the NSA can’t track them with accuracy.
The secret lies within how prepaid carriers, also known as MVNOs, identify their users – they don’t. Signing up for an MVNO doesn’t require any identifying information whatsoever. Simply buy a phone and airtime from an MVNO and activate it.
Burners make excellent temporary and permanent-use mobile devices, coming in all shapes and sizes. There’s even portable WiFi hotspot burners, which I’ve written about before. Android is currently the dominant operating system on prepaid smartphones (be wary of smartphones, though), but the market includes all manner of software. Some even use the open source Firefox OS. But how does one begin using a burner?
This article discusses what a prepaid phone, or burner, can do for you and how to get started with one.
Burners and Privacy
Prepaid phones provide better privacy than phones from carriers. In comparison, a burner provides superior privacy. However, in light of recent leaks on the US government’s domestic spying program, it appears that burners can be legally traced. It’s just a lot more difficult.
How Burners Protect Privacy
Prepaid carriers can’t share your personal information because it’s not collected from its users, unless you voluntarily submit it. You can give any name, or no name at all. Like all mobile devices, you can be tracked while using the device. The problem for law enforcement, or organizations that track phones illegally, is that the user can discard the phone whenever they please. By changing devices and making cash-only transactions, it’s possible to avoid detection.
How Burners Don’t Fully Protect Privacy
Another government leak recently demonstrated that while the NSA doesn’t possess the ability to fully monitor prepaid phones, they can monitor devices given certain conditions. One of those conditions: Long-term use of the same device. Once they ascertain a phone’s number, they can track it indefinitely. However, many prepaid phone companies sell what’s referred to as burners – disposable cell phones.
Another method of identifying a cellular device is through its MAC address. Tablets and smartphones come equipped with a WiFi chip. This chip include a unique identifier number known as a MAC address. Whenever your device connects to the internet over a wireless network, the MAC address is reported and recorded.
Third parties can still geolocate burner users by accessing a phone’s GPS and WiFi. Prepaid phones can also be tracked using the traditional, albeit less-accurate, method of cellular triangulation. However, even with such features enabled, locating a prepaid phone’s user remains difficult. Even the NSA has issues immediately locating and identifying prepaid burner users.
Ars Technica covered how the NSA seeks to thwart the anonymity offered by prepaid phones. Fortunately, the NSA’s methods aren’t 100% effective in identifying their users; prepaid burners still give users a means of sidestepping surveillance.
How do I Get Started with a Burner?
Getting started requires knowing what kind of phone to buy, how you can use it and the first steps of setting it up.
Kinds of Burners
Two primary kinds of prepaid cell phones exist. Those that come locked to a particular MVNO, such as Virgin Mobile and Tracfone, and those that sell SIM cards that can insert into an unlocked device. While not entirely true, CDMA carriers tend to sell phones and GSM tend to sell SIM cards. Technically speaking, however, these boundaries break down upon closer scrutiny, as Straight Talk sells CDMA SIM cards and all GSM carriers sell phones.
The actual phone number for a GSM mobile device is attached to the SIM card. For the CDMA standard, the phone number remains with the phone itself. By changing either the SIM card (for GSM) or the phone itself (for CDMA), you may anonymously change the phone number.
In short, you can buy either the SIM card or the phone itself.
What Are Burners Used For?
Burners can operate in a variety of roles. In the HBO series “The Wire“, burners functioned as an anonymous means to traffic drugs between gang members – the drug trade remains their most notorious application. Philandering spouses also use prepaid phones to communicate with their lovers, concealing contact numbers and bills from spouses. There are a lot of good uses for these as well.
Prepaid phones provide both internet access and a means of communication to the homeless, or those with bad credit, who oftentimes experience difficulties communicating with employers. Burners make this possible by not requiring a social security number or legal name. For these reasons, prepaid phones remain popular for both legal and illegal reasons.
Getting Started With a Burner Phone
Burners require a small amount of setup before using them. Buying a phone, as opposed to a SIM card, is the easiest method, although it costs slightly more. Most major retail outlets carry prepaid phones and SIM cards. For example, Walmart and Target sell prepaid phones and SIM cards. Getting started just takes three steps:,
- Buy a prepaid phone;
- Buy an airtime card;
- Activate the phone and add your airtime to your account.
It’s extremely easy. You can add airtime directly to the phone using a “pin” number. The exact process differs from carrier to carrier, though. You need to read the instructions on your airtime card.
Prepaid phones, colloquially known as “burners”, offer low cost and privacy. While you can still be monitored and tracked, burners make it more difficult for you to be illegally surveilled, particularly if you change phones or SIM cards frequently. Switching over to a burner can also save you a great deal of money on your cellular bill.
Anyone else use burner phones? Let us know in the comments.
Explore more about: Smartphone Security.