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September 10, 2023 | Becoming Invisible, Part 9: Burner Phones

John Rubino is a former Wall Street financial analyst and author or co-author of five books, including The Money Bubble: What to Do Before It Pops and Clean Money: Picking Winners in the Green-Tech Boom. He founded the popular financial website in 2004, sold it in 2022, and now publishes John Rubino’s Substack newsletter.

So let’s say the idiots running the US (or Canada, the UK, or Australia) have finally forced you to join a protest movement.

But you saw what happened to the truckers and their contributors in Canada, and you’re aware of the widening surveillance net spreading over the US. So you’d prefer not to end up on some would-be dictator’s enemy list, with all that that implies for your career, bank account, and life expectancy.

One obvious solution is to just leave your phone at home while attending a demonstration, thus making you electronically invisible. But going phoneless is psychologically and emotionally impossible for most people in today’s world. And in any event, you’ll need a phone to communicate with the other protesters.

The solution? Get a “burner” phone.

So that’s what the drug dealers were doing

If you’re a fan of legal procedurals like “Law and Order” or “The Wire,” you’ve seen drug dealers making calls and then tossing their phones out of a car or into a nearby pond. Those aren’t thousand-dollar iPhone 14s. They’re burners, cheap, limited-feature handsets that allow their owners to text and call more or less anonymously.

One of the advantages of a phone limited to voice and text is a low price of $20-$50, which makes the eventual disposal less painful. Another advantage is long battery life. A burner can hold a charge for months of inactivity (potentially years if it’s turned off), which makes it an ideal emergency backup phone. So even if you’re not planning to throw down with the deep state over the latest forever war, consider a burner for your bedside table or bug-out bag.

How and where to get one

Pretty much every store that sells phones carries a selection of cheap ones. Expect to pay between $10 and $50 for a basic burner, depending on its features. A common choice is Nokia’s line of Tracfones:

Or reuse an old phone. If you have an old but still functioning phone lying around, you can buy and install a new SIM card, known as a “burner SIM”. (If the phone is carrier-locked, make sure the SIM card matches the appropriate network.) Then instead of disposing of the entire phone, just swap out the SIM card when it’s time to go dark. This requires a bit of background knowledge but as always there are plenty of YouTube videos like the following to walk you through the process:

Match precautions to intended use

If you want a burner as an emergency backup, just go online and find the best deal on a phone or SIM. But if you want to avoid leaving a trail, go to a physical store and pay cash. And be sure, when adding pre-paid minutes to your phone, to also pay with cash.

It might make sense to gain experience by getting a burner as a backup phone and using it once in a while to get comfortable with the concept. Then, when and if the need arises, get an anonymous burner.

Ways to screw up

Bringing your regular phone to the burner purchase. Since we now know that both apps and phones themselves can track and store location data, having your regular phone with you will link you to the burner’s point of sale and its subsequent movements.

Driving right up to the store. Cameras on the route can capture your license plate and record your movements, tying you to the phone’s point of sale. Better to park as far away as possible and walk to the store.

Carrying your normal phone and burner while both are turned on. Your cell location records will show both phones in the possession of the same person.

There are many more ways to screw up, so this is a subject for ongoing research.

Will a burner make you completely anonymous?

Alas, no. As Edward Snowden likes to point out, if the government really, really wants to track you it can do so. To take just one example, facial recognition software running on surveillance cameras can identify pretty much everyone at a demonstration (unless they’re in disguise, which is a subject for another post).

But a burner can shrink your profile and make the Feds work for it. Which is a good start.

To learn more

Burners are a hot conversation topic online, so related articles and videos can keep you occupied for weeks if you want. Try to avoid getting obsessed, but a bit of further research will be time well spent.

And don’t let gaps in your current understanding stop you. Just do a quick search and the answers will appear. But remember to use a VPN and a private browser. Multiple unprotected Google searchers on burner-related topics will undo all the privacy benefits of actually having a burner.

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September 10th, 2023

Posted In: John Rubino Substack

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