Burner Phones for Activists

If you participate in street activism and attend actions, you probably understand the value of having a smartphone on you with an active data plan. The Signal secure messenger runs purely on data networks, and it can be useful to have a live mapping app in case you're unfamiliar with the area or need to find a way home.

Many activists recommend you do not bring your everyday phone with you to actions. If you do, you run the risk of law enforcement having a Stingray device on site. If the action is deemed unlawful, LEOs might cross-reference the list of serial numbers detected in the area with lists of known cell phone subscribers. This data might be used to start building a case against you.

Learn more about Stingray phone surveillance:

A burner phone is a device that is not tied to your identity that you may not plan to keep forever. Since this is for the purpose of modern activism, we'll look for a smartphone that runs Signal. Here's what you'll need to do:

  1. Buy a prepaid phone SIM
  2. Buy a smartphone
  3. Activate your phone plan
  4. Install Signal

Buy a prepaid phone SIM

When you buy stuff and you don't want to have it associated with your identity, the golden rule is use cash. You want to avoid a paper trail, so go to your favorite no-fee ATM, withdraw some cash, and only use cash for the following purchases.

I recommend you select Tracfone as your wireless carrier. They're inexpensive, run on a variety of wireless networks, and are almost definitely compatible with the smartphone you will buy. (My SIM card kit came with three different SIM cards for different networks.)

Tracfone SIM cards are sold as a BYOP (Bring Your Own Phone) kit. You can buy a smartphone/SIM card bundle, but I recommend against this as the phones are generally much more expensive when purchased through Tracfone. (Tracfone also sells odd models of Android that almost certainly will not receive security updates after too long.)

Go to your local tech superstore (e.g. Best Buy), walk over to the Tracfone section, and purchase a BYOP SIM card kit for $1. You're done.

Buy a smartphone

When buying a smartphone, consider the following:

  • Does this do what I want? The device should run an up-to-date operating system (iOS, Android). Google it and make sure it was made within the last five years.
  • Is it secure? Before you buy your device, make sure you can still update it. Android phones typically last two years before they stop receiving security updates from Google and the manufacturer. iPhones typically last four years as Apple puts a higher focus on keeping their devices running for longer. (This is why I recommend iPhones over Android devices.)

    If you are a power user, you might be able to flash a clean updated ROM onto your Android; make sure it's compatible before you buy.
  • Is it in good shape? Sure, you won't use this thing every day, but you want the screen to be free of cracks, the battery to be in good condition, and all the components in working order. (And don't forget to buy a case to protect it from drops while you're on the move.)

Here are three places you could buy a used smartphone:

  1. Locally on Craigslist. Craigslist people take cash, which is ideal, and you can inspect the phone in person before taking it home. But you might not be able to find a wide variety of devices in your area.
  2. In a bundle with your SIM card. But odds are this is much more expensive than purchasing a similar phone in a personal transaction.
  3. On eBay. This is not ideal, because you'll have to pay via PayPal. But the prices and selection will be better than shopping locally.

After you receive your phone, make sure to wipe it completely before setup, and update the OS as soon as possible.

Activate your phone plan

Your Tracfone plan has service days as well as minutes and data. Service days correspond to how long your phone number and service will remain activated. Minutes and data are how much of your prepaid quota you have available for use. When your plan runs low on any of these, you purchase Tracfone prepaid cards to top-up your plan.

There are two ways to top-up your plan without leaving a paper trail:

  1. Buy a Tracfone prepaid card with cash
  2. Buy a Visa/MasterCard debit gift card with cash, and use that to top-up on the Tracfone website

Tracfone cards are available at many gas stations, pharmacies, and grocery stores. They look like this:

The packaging for a Tracfone retail gift card

But if you choose to buy a Tracfone prepaid card with cash, you may run into some issues:

  • These cards usually come with service days and minutes, but not data. You need data to use Signal.
  • The "pick-your-own-size" cards (e.g. the card itself has barcodes for various denominations of "virtual top-up cards") must be activated at the register. The clerk will ask you for your phone number and name, and you don't want your name on record here.

I recommend the following process:

  • To activate your plan for the first time, purchase the cheapest Tracfone card you can find that includes plan minutes. (Again, use cash.)
  • To top-up your plan with data, purchase a $100 prepaid debit card. Then, go to the Tracfone website and refill your account using the debit card. Tracfone supports prepaid debit cards as a method of payment, and you don't have to provide your real name to complete the checkout process. (Your debit card may take some time to activate after you purchase it, so don't worry; just wait two hours and try again.)

At the time of writing, Tracfone offers the following refill on their site:

$15: 30 days service, 500 minutes, 500 texts, 500 MB data

If you refill with three of these, you'll get 90 days of service and 1.5 GB of data total for ~$50 after tax. This means you can get six months of service out of your $100 debit card. And as long as you set your phone up and install apps on wifi, and only use data for messenger apps, that data should last you a while.

Don't forget: you'll need to top up your phone to keep your service active, so pick up debit cards with cash before you need them.

Install Signal

Now that your phone is set up, it's time to install Signal so you can communicate with your comrades. If you're on Android, you can download the APK directly so that you don't have to sign into the Google Play Store with a real account.

If you're on iPhone, you will need an Apple account to download Signal. So don't use your everyday account here. Create a new email address for an alternate identity of yours through ProtonMail, a privacy-focused email provider with free plans available. Then use that email and identity to create an Apple account. Finally, sign into the App Store with this email and install Signal. Don't do anything with these accounts on any other device!

Conclusion

At this point, you have an activated smartphone, with a data plan and Signal, that are not tied to your true identity. The Intercept has a great article on true anonymity and privacy that you should read before you set up your device: Protesters, Here’s How to Set Up a Cheap Burner Phone. In particular, read the section titled A Note About Anonymity, as it raises important concerns about how you use your new device.

Be safe out there, and keep your comrades safe!

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