Why Privately Purchased Phones Benefit You

By now, you know your phone is a live tracking device. To what extent though? Both the GPS and the internal antenna expose your physical location. It’s best to assume your mobile phone carrier and manufacturer can access this information.

And if they can, you better assume malicious actors can as well. Ok so your phone doesn’t have GPS? Nice, but it’s still traceable. If your phone can send and receive calls, then it can be triangulated via cell towers.

This was revealed in the CO-TRAVELER program leaked by Edward Snowden. It exposed the heuristics used to gather critical information about a specific cell phone and its owner’s patterns.

CO-TRAVELER … maps the relationships of cell phone users across global mobile network cables, gathering data about who you are physically with and how often your movements intersect with other cell phone users. The program even tracks when your phone is turned on or off.

The information is stored on servers for an indefinite amount of time. There are other available tools for anyone with an internet connection to use. Reverse phone lookup and many other copy-cat sites offer insight into a cell phone’s location, which in turn exposes the user.

Anyone that is looking to find out information about you can figure out using these openly available tools on the web. You become more exposed with the increase in information that cell phone data collectors store about you. Trying to remove this information is one potential tactic but the data marketers will continue to exist.

You need to strike at the root of the problem.

Geo-fence warrants are also to be avoided. These warrants grab any identifying phone information within a suspected area of a crime to carry out investigations on the owners. This policy doesn’t require your consent either. If you want to avoid it altogether, then you should consider private cell phones.

Now this doesn’t stop your phone from being identified, but it does make it more difficult to discover your real identity and have it roped into the public court system.

Here’s what you can do

You can take measures to build privacy protections around your mobile phone strategy. Here a few suggestions:

Purchase a phone using privacy-preserving methods

Easiest way is to buy a cheap flip phone at a local store. If you want to be extra careful, then it should be a store that is not located near your residence. You can buy with cash and purchase the activation card with cash as well.

You won’t be able to gain the benefit of secure messaging, though. It’s cheap enough that it’s easy to rotate new numbers by just getting a completely new device. You would want a new device anyway because you do not want to hold onto the same IMEI number longer than necessary.

Purchase an unlocked device

You can get one from a service like https://mamushi.io/ . They accept both bitcoin and Monero. You can also refer to this previous post about private mail drops on how to further receive the phone privately.

Purchase a device in person

Be sure to pay with cash and ensure it’s factory unlocked. Take it to your local carrier and do a pre-paid plan that doesn’t require a credit check. You can pay for the plan in cash.  We’ll do a guide on this in the near future.

Changing your phone often will break up heuristics but if you’re concerned about things like dragnet surveillance, then the CO-TRAVELER concern will quickly link your phone to other parties as soon as you’re around them again.

This profile created about your phone can be built for you relatively quick when you consider the data points you’re providing (and by providing, we mean using a cell phone).

Because you’re rather unique, a profile that fits your description and describes your habits can be easily attributed to you. Consider the amount of different people you interact with on a daily basis. The odds that someone else interacts with the same EXACT people that you interact with on any consistent basis is extremely low.

Some extra measures you can take

  • Use faraday bags for your devices or figure a way to cut off all access to power
    • Using a solution like https://silent-pocket.com/ which blocks cell tower, GPS, bluetooth and NFC signal
      • Throw your phone in a faraday bag when not in use.
      • The less information that your phone is giving off, i.e. pinging off cell towers or GPS satellites, the less information any data broker can take and build against you
    • Or remove the batteries from your device
      • Your phone is never fully off when you turn off the phone via the software switches. You need to verify its off by using analog methods. Removal of the battery for most smart phones isn’t possible anymore, either. Dumb phones work well in this case.
  • Don’t carry your phone with you
    • If you do not need your phone, don’t bring the phone around with you
    • If you’re browsing, and you have your computer, use it instead. There is no need to give your phone more data points
    • If going to large gatherings or demonstrations, decide on a meetup point and meetup there instead of calling and finding each other.

The last option is a bit more difficult to consider. If you’re trying to avoid cell phone tracking, however, this is the best option, besides getting rid of your cell phone, of course 🤔

These methods work for different threat models. Find what works best for you. Solutions are always evolving. If you understand how cell phone tracking works, this same knowledge can help you navigate the digital and physical world in regards to cell phone digital footprints.

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