If you use a cell phone, you might wonder what organizations are tracking you and your data through your device. Are there any untraceable cell phones?
Generally, an untraceable phone does not exist. Mobile phones require tracking to handle phone calls, text messages, and mobile data. A burner or prepaid phone uses the same cellular network as other mobile devices. Some messaging apps can hide personal information and communication.
Let’s examine some myths about untraceable phones to understand why some tracking is unavoidable.
Myth: Prepaid Burner Phones Are Untraceable
When you use your phone to make calls or send texts through your cellular plan, you rely on your provider to transmit that information to your intended recipients. When connecting to a cellular network, your phone emits radio waves received by the nearest cellular tower.
Your wireless carrier depends on these land-based cell towers to provide cellular service. Cell phones are designed to be aware of the nearest tower. Computers at cellular base stations constantly monitor the locations of cell phones to route the signals to other cell towers.
Mobile phones use a SIM card to connect to your cellular network. That’s how your provider identifies you. Your name, cell phone number, contacts, billing information, data usage, and other personal information are all tied to your SIM card.
Every cell phone also has something called an IMEI number, which is a 15-digit number unique to each device. IMEI stands for International Mobile Equipment Identity, and you can think of it as your phone’s fingerprint.
The IMEI number, compared to the SIM, only identifies the device and not the user. However, the government or law enforcement can use your IMEI and SIM information to trace you and your location history.
There’s a surprising amount of information encoded in the IMEI of every phone:
- Type Allocation Code (TAC): device type
- Final Assembly Code (FAC): where the last stage of device production occurred
- Sequence Number (SNR): the unique serial number
- Check Digit (CD): a digit that verifies the IMEI is well formed using the LUN algorithm (like credit cards)
From this base information, additional device specifications like manufacturer, model, and phone specifications can be looked up including those of burner phones.
The idea of a burner phone is to have a cheap prepaid mobile phone that you can destroy or discard when you no longer need it.
When you buy and use a prepaid burner phone, you’re beginning a tracking history.
Imagine you were to walk into a store to buy a burner phone and pay for it entirely in cash, so there’s no traceability to your credit card or bank accounts. By turning on your phone, your device will reveal your IMEI to cell towers owned by major network operators. This unique fingerprint follows you as you move around cellular coverage.
While your personal identity may not be tied to the cell phone, the longer you use the phone, the more breadcrumbs you leave behind. Imagine being spotted on CCTV cameras using the device (manufacturer and model known from the IMEI). Tracking can then be connected from the time you activated the phone.
One promising solution is Silent Link, a cellular service provider that reduces the amount of information a cell phone user reveals. It provides global mobile 4G/5G Internet access with no personal information required. The service is entirely private and gathers no user data.
But because of the way cellular technology works, just using a burner phone won’t be enough to make you untraceable.
Myth: Burner Phone Apps Can’t Be Traced
Suppose you want to make your phone usage more private. There’s no shortage of disposable phone number apps to protect your privacy. One of these apps is Burner, which provides a second phone number for calling, texting, and picture messaging.
Here are some reasons why you might want to use a disposable phone number on your burner phone, as taken from the Burner app blog:
- Buying or selling items via an online platform
- Temporary need to communicate casually
- Meeting up with someone you met online
- Working on a new freelance project
- Separating work and personal life
- Signing up for new websites
- Contacting business leads
Another app that allows you to manage multiple phone numbers is Hushed – Second Phone Number, which serves the same purpose as the Burner app.
However, does that mean these apps can’t be traced back to you? Unfortunately, no.
Burner apps still collect information about subscribers when signing up or paying for their services. Download the Hushed app on your phone, for example. You’ll see that the very first screen you’re presented with asks you to either sign up or log in, and if you choose to sign up, you must enter your email address.
- Information from Third Parties and Integration Partners
- Registration/Profile Information
- Contact Information
- Billing Information
- Usage Information
- Log Data
That’s a lot of information about you!
Such apps as Burner or Hushed have access to all of the texts and calls you make through them. Various government or law enforcement agencies can obtain such data.
Myth: An Untraceable Mobile Phone Makes You Secure
As we’ve seen, it’s unrealistic to expect that you can be completely concealed from prying eyes, even if you use burner phones or secure apps. Using a cell phone makes users traceable at some level. The only way to not be traced through your phone is not to own a phone.
However, an average citizen can still improve their privacy and digital hygiene to decrease the information gathered about them. Understanding your threat model will help you guide your decisions.
According to a Pew Research Center report, roughly eight-in-ten U.S. adults feel they have very little or no control over the data that the government or companies collect about them. When it came to the prevalence of tracking, the report states:
72% of Americans report feeling that all, almost all or most of what they do online or while using their cellphone is being tracked by advertisers, technology firms or other companies. Another 19% think some of what they do is being tracked. Close to half (47%) of adults believe at least most of their online activities are being tracked by the government.
According to the Pew report from earlier, 78% of U.S. adults say they understand little or nothing about what the government does with the data it collects, and 59% say the same about the data companies collect.
An “untraceable” cell phone for illegal activities will not keep you secure from government or state-sponsored tracking. Plus, there are other avenues in your use of digital communications, like laptops and IoT devices, that can be used to collect information on you.
With that in mind, let’s look at some tips that will help make most mobile users untraceable enough.
Tips To Make You Untraceable (Enough)
When are ordinary everyday cell phone users at risk? According to this study by the Department of Homeland Security, industry experts believed that the most insecure areas for mobile users were:
- Mobile Applications: Malware (including backdoors, ransomware, and privilege escalation), mobile apps, and systems vulnerabilities.
- Networks: Rogue cellular base stations and Wi-Fi access points; Man-in-the-Middle attacks on communications.
- Mobile Device Technology Stack: Delays in security updates and zero-day exploits against software and firmware, particularly the baseband.
- Devices: Loss or theft of a mobile device.
- Devices and Applications: Exfiltration or access to sensitive data, personal or business, without user awareness or consent.
- User: Tricking users into visiting malicious links and downloading malware through Phishing, SMiShing, or spoofing
Some of these areas require government or corporate action to experience the most improvement. The report mentions the inability of governments to keep pace with the speed of technology change and dynamic threats, as well as a greater need for closer government-industry collaboration on information sharing on vulnerabilities and threat intelligence.
But much can also be improved through user action and awareness. Look at each category above and consider what users can do to advocate for themselves – researching mobile applications before downloading them, not connecting to unknown or insecure Wi-Fi networks, and being cautious of leaving their phone or laptop unattended in a public area.
Once you understand their importance, these tips don’t require special effort. Still, they make your data and private information much more secure than if you weren’t aware of what threats existed. That’s why education on digital privacy is so important.
You can take simple steps to keep yourself safe using the internet, whether on your computer or mobile.
- Keep your computers and mobile device operating systems and software/apps updated.
- Regularly scan your PC or laptop for malware and viruses.
- Use strong passwords and two-factor authentication.
- Limit the number of new online accounts you open.
- Be careful about the data you put online.
Think about how much of your life is connected to your phone number. Carelessly giving out your phone number can lead to spam calls, unwanted messages, and even identity theft.
This article by The New York Times shares how alarmingly easy it would be for an attacker to use your phone number to access your current and past home addresses, the names of your family members, your previous phone numbers, and vast amounts of other sensitive information.
What about a burner phone number? Can that be traced back to you?
Yes. Having multiple disposable phone numbers can significantly improve privacy for many people, but it will not make you untraceable. Check out our previous article to find out why.