Can Disposable “Burner” Cellphones Protect You From Government Surveillance?

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June 7 2013 12:45 PM

Can Disposable “Burner” Cellphones Protect You From Government Surveillance?

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The sort of phone you might throw away

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

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On Wednesday, the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald reported that, in compliance with a court order, Verizon has been giving the U.S. government data on all phone calls made over its wireless network. If Verizon is turning over its records, then you have to imagine other mobile companies are doing the same thing. So, is there any way to use a mobile phone in the United States without having the government take note? Can prepaid “burner” cellphones—popular among international travelers, people with bad credit, and the drug dealers from The Wire—help protect you against government surveillance?

To a point, yes. There’s really no such thing as an untraceable call. If the government wants to monitor or collect data on your communications, it can almost always find a way. But prepaid disposable cellphones will make you harder to track, as they don’t require users to sign up for a calling plan, with all of the handing over of personal information that entails.

The big advantage that burners have over traditional wireless phones is that the user’s personal data isn’t logged at the point of sale or by the service provider. Unlike at, say, the Verizon store, where buying a cellphone plan involves signing a contract and submitting to a credit check, you can pay cash for a burner and leave the store without showing your ID. If you wear a hoodie, sunglasses, or a fake beard (or all three!), you can stymie surveillance cameras. And if you use a funny accent, the clerk will think you’re from France.

All this will make it more difficult for the government to determine who you are. But don’t get too confident in your anonymity. First of all, calls made on burners are generally transmitted over existing networks. (No, the people behind “Barry’s Burners” probably aren’t erecting their own cell towers to transmit your calls.) Most prepaid cell service providers are what’s known as mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs. (Traditional carriers like Verizon also offer prepaid plans of their own.) That essentially means they buy space in bulk on existing wireless networks and resell it to consumers at a low price. If your burner operates on Verizon’s network, Verizon is probably turning that data over to the NSA. Sorry.

Second, it’s not difficult for the government to determine your location based on your burner’s communication with cell towers. In 2006 the DEA arrested a man named Melvin Skinner, who was caught transporting 1,100 pounds of marijuana across the Southwest. The government was able to catch up with Skinner by tracking the signals being emitted by his two prepaid cellphones and subsequently triangulating his location. (They had previously traced the burners back to Skinner. He probably didn’t use a French accent at the convenience store where he bought them.) Skinner appealed his conviction on the grounds that the tracking of his cellphone signal constituted a breach of privacy. In 2012, however, a federal appeals court ruled that people using prepaid cellphones had no “reasonable expectation” of privacy, and that the government was free to track away. So if you’re going to use a burner and don’t want it to get connected back to you, you probably shouldn’t use it at your house, or your place of business, or any other location with which you have an identifiable connection.

And when you use a burner, you have to remember to leave your real cellphone at home. In 2009 a medical student named Philip Markoff was arrested and charged with murdering a woman in a Boston hotel. Markoff had allegedly used a prepaid disposable cellphone to contact the victim beforehand; he had allegedly used similar tactics in another incident where he robbed a different woman at a different hotel. Both times, Markoff had had his real cellphone in his pocket, and, even though the phone was off, it was still communicating with cell towers. Police were able to determine Markoff’s identity in part by gathering information based on the signals emitted from his real cellphone. So keep that in mind.

In conclusion, burners can give you a measure of anonymity, but they’re by no means untraceable. If you’re looking for total assurance that your phone calls won’t be tapped, I recommend using two tin cans and a length of string.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.