Secure and private cellular communications is a fascinating topic to research. When the contract on my personal cell phone account expired recently, I chose to use that as an opportunity to change up my communication strategy. Of course, privacy and security were a top priority in developing the new system. I am not hiding from any three letter Federal agencies, but I wanted to explore some new methods that would make my communication more private than the average person, and also increase the security of accounts related to my cell phone number at the same time. When I completed setting everything up the way I wanted, I distributed a new phone number to my contacts. I received a variety of responses from people on my contacts list. “Is everything ok”…”why the number change?”…”seriously dude, who are you hiding from?”…and “only crooks change their phone number”. Most didn’t respond at all and simply put my new number in their contacts list. I also had a lot of people ask about how and why I decided to implement a new communications strategy. For anyone interested, that is the subject of this new blog entry.
There is a reason why crooks change their phone numbers often; to avoid being tracked and identified. A cell phone is primarily a tracking device that you carry with you absolutely everywhere. For a cellular phone to work, it must be connected to towers that actually provide the network connectivity. The locations and coverage footprints of each towers is geographically referenced. When your phone connects to one it creates a record. The tower has recorded the device (by IMEI number – International Mobile Equipment Identifier), and date/time. Your cellular provider will hold on to this information more or less indefinitely where it is available to them, their partners and affiliates, and government agencies. This is somewhat good news: currently this information isn’t totally open source. However, we all know that even the government’s ability to protect data is questionable at best. Also, if you are worried about government and corporate surveillance this information should be incredibly alarming to you. More info here.
Having a cell phone is a compromise. You give up some major privacy and security in exchange for the ability to communicate anywhere, at anytime. Every countermeasure you implement is one more layer of protection against this to reclaim some of your privacy. Truly anonymous communications is extremely difficult (and expensive) to achieve. Exploring ways to secure cell phone traffic and eliminate as much personally identifiable information has been quite an adventure. There are many different ways to accomplish this, depending on the type of device you have (iPhone, Android), and the different apps you chose to use. Other considerations are the money you are willing to spend and if there are any inconveniences you are willing to accept in the process. Having higher degree of privacy and security means that you won’t be using your phone in the same manner that most people do. Here is what I came up with to suit my particular needs. At the end I will summarize what this approach accomplishes.
Preparation & Purchase:
I purchased my phone (unlocked iPhone 7) from a major retail store in an anonymous manner. I paid full price (cash) for the phone and did not have to provide the retailer with any personal details about myself. The unlocked phone enabled me to activate service on any carrier I chose. Before activating the phone, I modified every setting in the operating system that affects privacy and security. Justin Carroll’s book “Your Ultimate Security Guide: iOS“, provides ample instruction of how to do this. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to set up a phone in a similar manner. Without it, or without someone to guide you through the process, you will miss critical settings that affect how private your phone can actually be. Moving on…
Once all the settings had been modified, I activated my phone on T-Mobil’s “hidden” Pre-Paid plan (LINK). This plan allows for unlimited web and text, with 100 minutes of talk time per month. I won’t be using the phone’s native talk minutes when calling so the minimal amount of minutes is a non-issue. I need data and lots of it for my strategy to work. This plan is very affordable and T-Mobile also has other Pre-Paid plans that will do the trick if I ever need to change. With a Pre-Paid account, I did not need to provide any personal information about myself to my carrier. I was issued a new phone number, and was on to the next step.
I downloaded several apps to use in my strategy from a location that offered free WiFi (not my home). In order to download apps I first set up an anonymous Apple ID and iTunes account. I provided no personal information about myself during this process. More on setting up an Apple ID can be found here. The first App I downloaded was PIA, my VPN of choice. I connected to PIA and established a secure connection for the rest of my downloads. I added, Signal for secure messaging, Line2 for VoIP calling, and a variety of others that I have become accustomed to using on a smartphone.
At home, I bought a new router and set up a new network to use with my new phone. I also manually transferred over contacts, calendars, and notes from my old Apple account to my new one. This process was time consuming, but I took care to not create any links between the two accounts and to minimize the use of any cloud services. This required me to pay for some music and apps I had previously purchased, but it wasn’t unreasonable. I carefully considered each piece of information that Apple would have as opposed to dumping all the data into the new account.
The phone number that I was assigned during the activation process with T-Mobile will not be given to anyone. For calling and most text messages I use an app called Line 2. For $8.30 per month, you get a phone number with 5000 calling minutes per month and unlimited SMS and MMS texts. The calls and texts work over WiFi/3G/4G/LTE, which was perfect for my needs. It allows me to have full use of the phone and calling features, even cellular service is turned off and only WiFi is being used. All calls and text use WiFi, or my phone’s data plan. I have WiFi access in most places (home & work), so the only time I even have cellular service turned on is when I am out and about. The Line2 service was paid for using a Vanilla Prepaid Card, anonymously of course.
Signal Private Messenger is a free application, and my new favorite encrypted communication solution. Signal supports both voice and instant messaging (texting) in a single app. It is incredibly easy to use, and convenient for others to use. There is no complicated setup and no username or password to create and remember. This app is incredibly intuitive and resembles native phone and texting applications. Signal also uses your phone’s Wi-Fi or data connection. More on Signal here and also here.
Flyp is a free VoIP calling application that I downloaded in order to have a free option for an additional phone number. This will be used sparingly when I do not want to disclose other numbers I have for whatever reason. Good to have options, right? (LINK)
Finalizing The Set-Up:
I tested out the various applications I would be using before disconnecting my old service and retiring my old phone. I am happy to report that everything worked as expected. I have now placed and received hundreds of calls using Line2 as my primary number for calls and texts, both on cellular data and WiFi only. Signal works extremely well too for secure communications (voice/text) when needed. I have never used the account level phone number assigned to my pre-paid T-Mobile account. An important note; in this set-up, 911 emergency calls will need to be placed using your phone’s native calling app and actual phone number. This is because the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), cannot determine your location if you use a VoIP service like Line2.
I took time distributing my “new number” to each contact in my address book. Several contacts now only use Signal to communicate with me, which is the best scenario. Not everyone uses Signal though and for those contacts I have distributed my Line2 VoIP number. Nobody has the number assigned to the phone’s pre-paid account and that number has never been used for anything. My old phone number was ported to Google Voice so that I could still receive voicemails, texts, and control over that number if needed. More on how to do that can be found here and also read about ‘Why you should never release a phone number” here.
What does all of this accomplish? The prepaid account allows me to have a phone without providing personal information to the carrier. My primary phone number (given to my contacts) is a reliable VoIP number (Line2) that works on cellular data and WiFi which enables me to keep the cellular service on my phone turned off most of the time. Cellular is not on at home, work, and whenever WiFi is available. Line2 provides all the calling features I need, and Signal provides a way to communicate securely when needed. Because my “real” phone number is not given to anyone, I can change it at anytime. I can change carriers, change numbers and calling plans for any reason without distributing a new number to my contacts because the number they have for me is a VoIP line. Companies like financial institutions that use my phone number as a verification mechanism have a different VoIP number for that purpose. Because those companies are the only ones that have that particular number, it would be very difficult for someone to find and exploit. Remember, by using one or more VoIP numbers, it creates a layer of protection from revealing the true details of your cellular account, which greatly reduces the data that is collected about your locations and communications.
Like I mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are many methods that would accomplish this same goal depending on what device you use and what applications you may choose. The average cellular user will not go to these lengths, which is exactly why this accomplished the goal I had. Does this greatly enhance the privacy and security of my communications? Yes. Does it allow me to hide from the NSA? Probably not. Their ability to analyze metadata alone would be enough to identify you in almost every case. Also, the VoIP service collects data about my communications much the same as my carrier would. Not ideal, but I like that my actual carrier (T-Mobile) has far less data about me. Moving more and more contacts to Signal over time will be the best strategy. This strategy is not a silver bullet; it has disadvantages and vulnerabilities. I am willing to accept those right now for the sake of all the other advantages and the flexibility it offers.
I sure did learn a lot by experimenting with this project and putting it into use. Secure cell phones are a tough nut to crack. There are a lot of variables and a lot of compromises you may need to make to find a solution that works for your needs. Entire books and a great deal of information has been written online about secure communications. I encourage you to explore this fascinating topic more if you are interested and find a safer, more secure solution for your needs. Technology can be used by crooks or terrorists or anyone with bad intentions to ‘hide’ or to do harm. It can also enhance our lives and protect us. I hope some of this was helpful and I always enjoy your feedback.