How to Set Up a Cheap Burner Phone

BY MICAH LEE
THE INTERCEPT

If you’re taking to the streets to demand justice for the victims of police brutality and homicide, you may want to leave your phone at home. No matter how peaceful your behavior, you are at risk of getting arrested or assaulted by police. Cops might confiscate your phone and search it regardless of whether or not they’re legally allowed to, or they might try to break it, especially if it contains photos or video of their violent or illegal actions.

At the same time, it’s a good idea to bring a phone to a protest so you can record what’s happening and get the message out on social media. Filming police is completely legal and within your rights, and it’s one of the few tools citizens have against police brutality. It’s also important to be able to communicate with others in real time or to find your friends in case you get separated.

To reconcile this tension — between wanting to protect your privacy and wanting to digitally document protests and police misdeeds — the safest option is to leave your primary phone, which contains a massive amount of private information about you, at home and instead bring a specially prepared burner phone to protests.

I discuss how to do this at length below, and in the video above.

What if I Can’t Afford a Burner Phone?

I bought a Nokia 1.3 smartphone for $99, as well as three months of prepaid phone service for $40. If this is too expensive for you, you may have other options:

  • If you have an old phone collecting dust in a drawer, as long as it still works and the battery still holds a charge, you can use this as your burner phone rather than buying a new one. You just need a new SIM card, like one that comes with prepaid cell service. Make sure to factory reset the phone before getting ready to protest.
  • There are even cheaper phones and prepaid service options than the ones I chose, and these can work fine as well.
  • If you want to avoid paying for phone service for your second phone, depending on your current cell phone provider and what types of phones you have, you may be able to remove the SIM card from your main phone and insert it into your burner phone, and then put it back after the protest. This will cause all calls and texts to temporarily go to your burner phone instead of your main one. You’ll want to make sure the SIM card slot on the second phone can accommodate the size of the SIM card you have on your primary phone.

If a separate burner phone still isn’t an option and you decide you need to bring your primary phone, here are some steps to take to make it safer and less likely for your private data to end up in the hands of the police:

  • Disable fingerprint and face unlock, and instead require typing a passcode or password to unlock your phone. This makes it take longer to get into your phone, but it also makes it considerably harder for police to get in without your consent.
  • Make sure your passcode or password is not easily guessable. If you’re using a numeric passcode, it should be at least 6 digits, but longer is better.
  • Set up a SIM PIN, which prevents police from removing the SIM card from your phone and inserting it into another, which would allow them to take over your phone number. Here are iPhone instructions and Android instructions for doing this. If you set a SIM PIN, you’ll need to type it every time you reboot your phone in addition to your passcode.
  • If you’re using Android, make sure your phone’s storage is encrypted (all iPhones have encrypted storage). On most Android phones, you can look in the Settings app, under Security > “Encrypt phone” to find phone encryption settings.
  • Disable every smartphone feature that isn’t necessary like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and location services. You can also keep your phone in airplane mode when you don’t need to use the network. This will make your phone leak less information that police can use to track you.

The Markup published some good steps to take before bringing your primary phone into a protest, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a good guide as well.

There are additional tips for non-burner phones in a video I made with my colleague Lauren Feeney in 2017, “How to Protect Your Privacy at a Protest.”

Picking Out a Burner Phone

The main criteria for picking out a cheap burner phone is cost, which means iPhones are out. You may be able to find an old or refurbished iPhone for around $200, but Android phones can do the job just as well for much less. It’s common for low-end Android phones to be riddled with security issues that never get fixed, so the next criteria is finding a phone that supports the latest security updates.

With this in mind, I settled on the Nokia 1.3, which I bought for $99 on Amazon. This phone was released in March 2020, and it comes with the latest version of Android (the Go edition for low-end devices). It seems to have a good battery life and a decent camera, which is about all that’s required for this phone.

I was also looking for a cheap prepaid phone plan and ended up choosing Mint Mobile. I ordered a SIM card that comes with 3 months of service, also on Amazon, for $40.

I’m using this phone and this phone service, but these steps should be similar no matter what model phone or phone service provider you go with.

Using a Password Manager

Everyone who is serious about digital security should be using a password manager. Password managers are apps that create and store passwords for you, allowing you to use strong, random passwords without needing to memorize them. All your passwords are saved in an encrypted vault, and you unlock them using a single passphrase that you do memorize.

The process of setting up this burner phone requires keeping track of a bunch of passwords, so if you’re not already using one, you should set one up first. Some good options are Bitwarden, KeePassXC, LastPass, and 1Password.

When you’re setting up your burner phone, you’ll want to save the following information in your password manager:

  • Username and password for prepaid mobile service account
  • Username and password for burner Google account
  • PIN for unlocking the phone
  • PIN for Signal
  • Any other PINs or login information related to your phone

Setting Up and Locking Down the Nokia 1.3 or Other Android Phone

Watch the video for a complete tutorial on configuring the Nokia 1.3 to get ready to bring to a protest. Much of the advice applies to other up-to-date Android phones. The tutorial steps include:

  • Inserting the prepaid Mint Mobile SIM card and activating cell phone service
  • Creating a burner Google account to go along with the burner phone
  • Installing system updates, and adjusting all of the Android settings to be as secure, and to leak as little data, as possible
  • Installing and configuring the Signal app, and adding the contacts you’ll need during the protest to the device in such a way that they don’t get uploaded to the cloud
  • Installing social media apps
  • Setting up Google Photos to automatically upload photos and videos to the cloud, so that you’ll be able to recover them from another device even if police confiscate or break your phone

A Note About Anonymity

If you carry a phone with you, you don’t have location privacy. Police are able to use devices called cell-site simulators, also known as Stingrays or IMSI-catchers, to monitor and collect data from all phones at a protest. Additionally, telecom and tech companies collect their own vast location databases from phones, and this sort of data is not possible to anonymize.

Using a burner phone can help with this problem, especially if you leave it powered off or in airplane mode except when you need to use it. But if you actually want to make sure your burner phone isn’t connected to your identity in any way, you have to do a lot more work:

  • You have to buy the phone and phone service in person using cash instead of online, and pick a carrier that allows you to activate service without asking for identification.
  • Whenever you need to use the internet — first on your computer to activate your phone service, and then on your burner phone to install updates and apps — you need to do so anonymously by using Tor Browser or a public Wi-Fi network that’s far from your home.
  • You should never have your primary phone and your burner phone powered on in the same place at the same time, and you should never power on your burner phone at your house.

If they search your burner, they’ll gain access to far less information about your life, your friends, and your activism.

You also need to take additional steps to stay anonymous at a protest, such as wearing nondescript clothes, covering your face (you should be doing this anyway since we’re in the middle of a global coronavirus pandemic), covering tattoos, and making a plan to avoid license plate readers or using public transit cards that can track your movements.

Keeping yourself completely anonymous while using a burner phone for protests is outside the scope of this article. Instead, these steps present a middle ground where it’s more difficult, but not impossible, for police to learn your identity, and if they confiscate and search your burner phone, they’ll gain access to far less private information about your life, your friends, and your activism than if they had confiscated your primary phone.

Before the Protest

Each time you’re preparing to go to a protest, it’s important to know exactly what you’ll be bringing with you. Leave all electronics at home except for your burner phone: Don’t bring a laptop, a smartwatch (sorry, your steps won’t count), USB sticks, or anything else. And if you’re planning on using your burner phone to bring to different protests, make sure to delete all your photos and videos from the burner phone after copying them to another device, and to delete any Signal conversations from previous protests, before you head out.

It’s always safest to go to protests with a buddy or a group of friends. You should put the phone numbers of everyone you know who will be at the protest in your burner phone in case you need to contact them. If your friends are bringing burner phones of their own, put their burner numbers in your contacts.

You should also make sure you know who to call in case you get arrested. Protest organizers should provide attendees with a legal support phone number, often run by an organization like the National Lawyers Guild. You should write this phone number on your skin with a permanent marker. If you get arrested, the police will confiscate your phone so you won’t be able to look it up there. You’ll want to call this number from jail in order to get legal support.

And it’s important to keep in mind that the coronavirus pandemic is still ongoing. Make sure to bring a face mask and hand sanitizer, and attempt to social distance when you can to avoid spreading the virus. It’s also always a good idea to bring a bottle of water.

During the Protest

No matter what cops might tell you, it’s completely legal to film them in public. Filming the police is one of the few tools citizens have to force accountability on them. If it weren’t for people filming police brutality on their cellphones, we wouldn’t have nearly so much evidence of widespread systemic racism within American police forces.

It’s good to share photos and videos from protests on social media, but you should also be mindful of the wishes of other protesters. While you’re legally allowed to film anything in a public gathering, it’s respectful to ask permission before taking photos of people’s faces.

If you’re paying for enough mobile data, you may want to configure Google Photos to automatically upload all photos and videos you take to the cloud. This way if police confiscate or damage your phone during the protest, you’ll be able to log in to your burner Google account from another device to access your media later on. Be aware, however, that pictures in Google Photos are not encrypted, meaning Google will be able to provide them to authorities if subpoenaed.

If You Get Arrested

Even if you’re peaceful and aren’t breaking any laws, police might arrest you at a protest. If you can tell that you’re about to get arrested, and it’s safe to do so, power off your phone. This makes it a lot harder for cops to get into your phone.

Police do not have the right to search your phone without your consent unless they get a warrant. If an officer asks you to unlock your phone, or if they grab your phone from your hands while it’s unlocked, tell them: “I do not consent to a search of my phone. I want to talk to a lawyer.” (It’s OK if you don’t have a lawyer yet, you should still say this.) They may confiscate your phone and illegally search it anyway, but it’s best to make it clear at the moment that you don’t consent.

It’s also possible that cops might try to steal or break your phone, especially if they noticed you filming them being violent. If any of this happens, at least it will just be your cheap burner phone with minimal data on it rather than an expensive phone full of private information about your life and your activism.

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