A burner phone is a temporary, no-contract, and inexpensive phone people buy to keep their anonymity, avoid surveillance, or protect their private data from getting into the wrong hands.
Burner phones garnered wide attention when the media made shows about characters who bought and quickly discarded devices and phone numbers to avoid electronic surveillance and wiretap technologies by law enforcement. Once a character suspected their number was compromised in these shows, they burned the device to erase evidence of their location and activities.
But burner phones are not limited to characters avoiding surveillance only. There are several legitimate reasons to use a burner phone. However, regardless of why you need a burner phone, you must understand how to choose one, set it up, and best practices for using a burner phone.
Suffice to say that the best burner phone is cheap, easy to destroy, and has excellent battery life. A burner phone is a disposable phone – one you can burn to rid it of sensitive information or unwanted data. So, it must be cheap. In fact, burner phones are often called dumb phones or feature phones because they have the bare minimum features and are sold at low prices. Most of these phones only let users send and receive texts or calls, but burner phones on the higher end are internet-enabled and have additional features like cameras, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.
Ultimately, the burner phone you choose should fit your basic needs, not comfort. So, if you are a protester, Airbnb host, online merchant, or dating people online, a Nokia 1.3 would do just fine. At about $100, it is pricier than the regular burner phone, but it is reliable and best suited for people who need to use the internet. However, if you give anonymous reports via text or voice call, a low-end phone is better suited for you. These phones typically cost between $10 – $50, depending on the brand and features. You can get a stack of them and destroy them after each use without racking up significant expenses.
Many people know that a burner phone keeps them anonymous. However, there is no guarantee the anonymity provided by burner phones is absolute. Thus, after identifying the best burner phone that fits your temporary needs, you must be careful about how you purchase, set up, and use the burner phone.
You can take these general precautions when buying or claiming your burner phone. There is no guarantee that they will work for you. Certain precautions apply to some people, e.g., protesters and investigative journalists, more than others, e.g., persons meeting their online dates and Airbnb hosts. The first category of persons must conceal their identity as much as possible, while the latter category only needs basic precautions.
After getting the burner phone, you must set it up in a way that reduces the chances of compromising your identity. For instance, you don't want to turn on the phone in your home because prying eyes with the skillset and tools can easily link both devices to you.
Suppose you are an investigative journalist. You want to turn on and use your burner phone in a public place like a large mall or park. If you are a civil rights activist or social justice protester, you want to be far away from your home and near the protest ground before turning on your burner phone. That way, if unwanted persons get the device, they cannot reverse engineer it to trace your location history. Also, if you use a burner phone, you wouldn't be worried about a subpoena to your mobile carrier turning up your phone call, internet, and location history. The same applies to a subpoena to your service provider to provide metadata on your activities.
That said, here is how to set up and use a burner android phone, like the Nokia 1.3:
A burner SIM card is a cheap, prepaid SIM card that you will use with your burner phone. The burner SIM lets you have a burner phone number that is not linked to your personal information using a phone number search. You can get these SIMs from Walmart or other convenience stores. Remember to buy the burner phone and SIM card at different stores. Insert the SIM card in your burner phone and follow the carrier's instructions for activating the SIM card. Persons who are conscious of their anonymity must activate the SIM using a burner ID or alias. Also, set up the burner SIM without providing information like your billing address. You can buy a voucher to top up your phone, top it up at convenience stores, or use other anonymous online top-up methods.
When you turn on your new burner phone, skip the prompts to connect to Wi-Fi or a mobile carrier to set up your phone. Next is Google services. Turn off "Use location" and turn off "Allow scanning." Furthermore, you want to disallow permissions to "Send Diagnostic Data."
Your phone will prompt you to set up security. As a rule of thumb, do not use face unlock, patterns, and fingerprint unlock. It is easy to bypass these security measures. For instance, anyone can use your picture to unlock your phone, hold up your face to the phone, and unlock it without your permission. The same applies to fingerprint unlock. The best security measures to use are PINs and Passwords. For PINs, it is best to use and memorize eight random digits. For passwords, a combination of words, symbols, and numbers works best. In either case, no one can open your phone without your permission or you telling them your security keys. Note that you can use a password manager to generate and store random PINs and passwords.
Phone manufacturers release software updates to improve phone security all the time. It is most likely that your burner phone software will be outdated. So, go to settings and download the latest software update for your device.
Android devices do not need a Google account. However, you will need one if you intend to use Google proprietary software, like Gmail, Chrome, and especially the Play store. Most people don't bother creating a Google Account and get necessary apps from other web stores instead. If you must create a Google account, however, create one using an alias. That way, you maintain your anonymity and still use Google's proprietary apps and services.
Turn off Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. These features are automatically turned on with new Android devices and emit information that can compromise your anonymity. You also want to turn off GPS/location so that your burner phone does not contain your geo-location history. However, note that turning off location, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth means you cannot use device-finding features if you lose your phone.
Many Android phones are preset to show sensitive notifications, even on locked screens. So, you want to check your "Apps and Notifications" and disable sensitive notifications on "locked screen." So, if you've got text messages or other app notifications while your phone is locked, other persons cannot access them.
Next, go to your advanced settings. If you have a Google account on the phone, you will notice certain activities are enabled, e.g., web and app activity. Turn these off. See systematic instructions for turning off and deleting other Google activities on your phone, including ads personalization. You also want to turn off Google Sync.
Entities with the skillset and tools can remotely breach your phone and access the camera. Since burner phones do not come with pop-up cameras like the high-end phones or camera shutters, consider taping the front and back cameras. You only need to remove the taps when you need to. Taping your camera will look odd if you use your burner phone in public, so use a tape that conceals it well.
The best thing to do is memorize the phone numbers of persons you call on your burner phone. If you cannot memorize their numbers, you can save their phone numbers on your phone memory. Do not store contacts on the SIM memory because a SIM card is removable. Ergo, unwanted persons can easily check contacts without your consent, especially if they cannot unlock your phone.
Just to be safe, lock your SIM card from the security tab in the settings menu. This way, no one can access your SIM card and phone without your consent.
Signal is an encrypted messaging app that individuals who want to communicate anonymously use. You can also download privacy-focused browsers to use the web anonymously. Installing and using a VPN will also help conceal your web activities from your internet service provider and prying eyes. Furthermore, you must enable call blocking on the phone so that you do not become a target for random unsolicited phone calls from telemarketers and scammers who spoof their numbers. Most phones have in-built call blocking features. Otherwise, download and use a reputable call blocking app.
A basic rule of thumb is to delete messages you receive after reading them. Do not keep information on your burner phone unless necessary. Saving data on Cloud storage services is not advised unless the service provider uses zero-knowledge encryption. Also, do not take or store photos or videos on your burner phone, as the metadata for these files can reveal a lot of information.
Two people can keep a secret but imagine asking the thousands of people to keep a fake moon landing secret. The same applies to your burner phone. Apps collect data and require permissions, some of which are intrusive and may compromise your identity. So, only install the barest minimum apps on the burner phone.
Although your burner phone contains a burner SIM, your primary phone most likely contains a SIM you don't want to destroy. Using both devices around each other makes it easy for people with the skillset and tools to link the burner phone to you.
For example, imagine making a phone call on your primary phone and making another phone call on the burner phone at the same location moments later. Surveillance searching for other mobile activities around your phone can pick this up pretty quickly. However, if you do this, consider destroying the burner phone immediately, especially if you suspect that you are under surveillance.
Your phone is a trove of data about your life. It contains all your photos, private messages, social media accounts, emails, and metadata. If these data get into the hands of unwanted persons, you cannot guarantee your anonymity or safety. So, you need a burner phone. How you set up your burner phone depends on your privacy needs. Ultimately, you want to remember that a burner phone is not your second phone. It is a disposable device that should contain the barest minimum data.