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January 20, 2024 7 mins

Buying a cheap phone containing prepaid minutes and texts with cash can help you preserve anonymity in some ways, but companies and governments still have ways of listening in. Learn more in this episode of BrainStuff, based on this article: https://electronics.howstuffworks.com/burner-phones.htm

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Brainstuff, a production of iHeartRadio, Hey Brainstuff Lauren
Vogelbon Here. You may hear about them on the news
or in a movie with the suspect used a burner
phone to contact the family after the kidnapping, or you
might have seen them at a convenience store. Burner phones
are cheap phones that come with pre paid minutes. These

(00:25):
are simple devices that tend to resemble old flip phones,
though they often have touchscreens and smartphone features as well.
These burner phones come preloaded with a certain amount of
call minutes or text messages, which can also be reloaded
when exhausted. For the article, this episode is based on
How Stuff Works. Spoke via email with Shanel Agarwal, a

(00:45):
cyber expert who currently serves as a CCO for the
software and web development company tech Ahead. He said people
who want to remain private were anonymous for a variety
of reasons, such as journalists, activists, or people engaging in
illegal activities frequently use them. Other common users include those
who want to keep their identity a secret. This can

(01:08):
be great if, for example, a person trying to get
out of a bad home situation doesn't want their texts
or calls to be monitored by volatile members of the household,
but on a larger scale. Even if you pay cash
for the phone and the minutes, it doesn't mean that
you're totally incognito to the powers that be. A cell
phones can be easily tracked and mined for data by

(01:30):
app developers, third party advertisers, and even local governments. In
the United States, the legislative acts such as the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act and the infamous Patriot Act have given
the federal and state governments great power when it comes
to tracking and retrieving wireless communications. Ostensibly, these laws concerned
matters of national security, but they've been used as a

(01:53):
pretense numerous times by law enforcement to surveil the lives
of ordinary citizens. In most cases, the acies invoking these
acts aren't even required to obtain a formal search warrant.
Some activist groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union
or ACLU, consider this to be a violation of the
Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects against unreasonable search

(02:14):
and seizure. More recently, law enforcement agencies have added a
tool known as the stingray to their arsenal. These devices
have been suspected to be deployed during mass protests, including
the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in twenty twenty. The stingray
is essentially a small temporary cell tower that inserts itself

(02:34):
as a bottleneck between mobile phones and their networks. If
you're in range of a stingray, then your phone will
automatically connect to it as if it were a legitimate tower.
You'll be able to use mobile data as normal, but
things like calls, text messages, and passwords may be covertly
intercepted by the party but controls the antenna. Private companies

(02:56):
can also declare open season on your mobile data. Given
some smartphone apps some permissions to access things like your location,
contact list, or microphone shady developers can then turn around
and sell this data to advertisers and government entities as
an underhanded way of making extra money. All that being said,

(03:16):
burners do have their advantages. Normal cell phones usually require
a carrier wireless plan, which comes with a contract that's
tied to the user's legal name. This means any data
scraped from your phone can easily be tied to your identity.
Burner phones add an extra layer of protection because they
can usually be purchased with cash and with no contract required.

(03:39):
Agarwall said burner phones can be beneficial for keeping privacy
and anonymity in certain situations, such as when dealing with
sources as a journalist, or while going to a new
country where local simcards may be necessary. To make sure
that their anonymity and privacy continues, users of these phones
will often disconnect or burn the dive after a certain

(04:00):
amount of time, or even throw it away. If anonymous
calls are still needed, they'll replace the phone with a
new prepaid number. If a third party happens to be
scraping the device for data, then this method ensures that
their information stream will end when the phone is burned.
Burner phones offer the strength of anonymity upon purchase, but

(04:21):
otherwise they possess the same weaknesses as other phones. Agarwal said.
While burner phones offer a higher level of anonymity compared
to regular phones, they're not completely untraceable. Burner phones can
be traced by law enforcement agencies using various methods such
as call detail records, location tracking, surveillance, and stingray devices.

(04:41):
But furthermore, if a third party has recordings of your
calls and texts, it's possible that they could identify you
using contextual information or simply by the sound of your voice.
Law enforcement agencies also possess voice recognition technology that can
assist in matching a voice to its source. It's because
of these ever present surveillance methods that burning the phone
every so often is important to staying anonymous. Agarwal said.

(05:06):
These methods can reveal information regarding calls made and received
by the burner phone, such as the time of day,
the length of time, and the location. Law enforcement authorities
have had some success in determining the identities of people
using burner phones in several instances. Of course, if you
log into your Facebook or TikTok account from your burner phone,
or buy some goods from Amazon, that will certainly blow

(05:29):
your cover. But burner phones are just one type of
gadget that can be used to boost your cybersecurity. They
aren't infallible, and they're best employed in conjunction with other methods,
Agarwal said. For instance, encrypted messaging applications like Signal offer
end to end encryption, which means that the only people
who can read the messages are the sender and the recipient,

(05:50):
not even the app providers. Themselves can access the information.
In addition, making use of a virtual private network often
known as a VPN can assist in preventing the parties
from tracking your location data as well as the online
activities that you participate in. Piling methods of data abstraction
on top of each other will go a long way
toward maintaining anonymity. Still, it's important to remember that none

(06:14):
of them are perfect. At the end of the day,
data can be tracked, the best encryption has the potential
to be broken, and the only one hundred percent secure
form of communication is face to face conversation with someone
you trust. Today's episode is based on the article are
burner phones really Untraceable? On how stuffworks dot com? Written

(06:37):
by Talenthomer. Brain Stuff is production of iHeartRadio in partnership
with how stuffworks dot Com and is produced by Tyler Klang.
Four more podcasts from my heart Radio. Visit the iHeartRadio app,
Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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