Perhaps the Most Secure “Burner Phone” of All?

Politicians, business executives, movie stars, professional athletes, and anyone else concerned with their personal privacy might want to have a second cell phone in addition to their primary phone. The second cell phone often is called a “burner phone.” It can be used to hide sensitive information from news reporters, overseas hackers, government agencies, business competitors, law enforcement personnel, Border Patrol, or from a curious spouse!

See my earlier article, Michael Cohen had 16 Cell Phones Seized by the FBI, at http://bit.ly/2rbKx3l for one person’s example. See http://bit.ly/2jjfWh4 for hundreds of other articles about “burner phones.” However, I will tell you about what I consider to be the best burner phone of all as well as one of the cheapest, and I don’t think it is mentioned in any of the other articles.

My candidate as the best burner phone off all is the Apple iPod touch. “Hey, wait a minute!” you exclaim. “That’s not even a phone!”

You are correct, and that is one of the reasons why it is such an effective phone. Anyone who wants to examine your cell phone to uncover your secrets probably won’t even think to look at your iPod touch. That’s the best security of all. (Shhh! Don’t tell anyone about this article, OK?)

Another major fact to consider is that iPod touch devices are generally much cheaper than purchasing a second cell phone and then paying another monthly charge to a cell phone company! Whether you want to use an iPod touch as a burner phone or perhaps even as your primary cell phone, it will be cheaper than using a phone provided by a local cell phone company.

NOTE: Using an iPod touch as your only cell phone probably isn’t practical for most people. In this article, I will assume that you might use an iPod touch as your second wireless phone, not as your only device.

If you are not familiar with Apple’s iPod touch (Apple always spells the word “touch” with a lower-case “t”), I will quickly point out that some people call it “an iPhone but without the phone.” That description is amusing and close to being accurate.

An iPod touch is marketed by Apple as a personal music player. It is one of several available iPod devices sold by Apple. You probably have seen hundreds of people walking along the street wearing tiny “earbud” phones plugged into their ears, and we can assume they were listening to music or podcasts or something similar. The earbuds are usually connected to Apple iPods or sometimes to a competitive music player made by some other company. Apple has sold millions of iPod devices.

The iPod touch is the top-of-the-line music player produced by Apple. However, it is much more than a simple music player. Apple essentially took the design of the wildly popular iPhone “smart phones,” removed all the telephone’s components required to communicate with cellular networks and also removed the GPS (Global Positioning System) equipment. The end result was a much smaller device than most cell phones, so Apple packed everything into a small case and called it an iPod touch. The smaller device has almost all the “smarts” of an iPhone except for the inability to connect to cellular any networks and the lack of a GPS. Like all the other versions of iPod, the iPod touch can play music. However, it can also do a lot more things that are not possible with the cheaper iPods.

The iPod touch still has all the wi-fi and Bluetooth networking capabilities that are found in the iPhone. It can communicate with any nearby wi-fi or Bluetooth connection. (More on that later.) It also can accept the installation of most iPhone apps (software applications). Once the appropriate apps are installed, an iPod touch can surf the web, read and write your email messages, read the latest news and sports reports, use Facebook or Twitter or other social networking sites, play games, research your family tree, access your employer’s business systems, buy and sell stocks, make doctors’ appointments, monitor the status of your home’s security system, and much, much more. Oh yes, it can also play music.

Perhaps most important of all, the iPod touch has a built-in microphone and a speaker. If you are using a telephone app, you can speak into the device and listen to it for replies. As a result, the iPod touch can even make and receive phone calls if configured to do so. (More on that later.)

The iPod touch CANNOT do two things that might be important to you: it cannot connect to any cell phone company’s cellular network (because it doesn’t contain the wireless equipment needed to operate on cellular networks) and it cannot use any app that requires a GPS (because there is no GPS receiver in an iPod touch). You cannot use Waze or any other GPS applications that display your present location.

OK, here is the “secret” that makes the iPad touch work as a pseudo cell phone.

First, keep in mind that the iPod touch can use almost any iPhone app with the exception of those apps that require a GPS or a cellular network connection. These iPhone apps normally are downloaded and installed from the Apple App Store. The iPod touch does the same as an iPhone: the owner of the iPod touch connects via wi-fi, goes to the App Store, and downloads the apps that he or she wishes to use. (The same is true for an iPad tablet computer, but I will ignore iPads for the rest of this article.)

Next, if you search the App Store, you will find several apps that install VoIP phone functionality into an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. VoIP is an abbreviation for “Voice over Internet Protocol,” a method of sending voice telephone calls over digital data networks, such as the Internet. For more information about VoIP, see Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voice_over_IP. VoIP has become very popular in the past few years. Almost all business phones and many home phones now connect to the Internet via VoIP technology.

Whatever device you might be using, VoIP calls can be placed over any Internet connection of reasonable speed, be it on a wi-fi or Bluetooth connection in your home or a wi-fi connection in a coffee shop, restaurant, store, bus station, at the airport, or anyplace else. In fact, you can use VoIP technology to place phone calls over a cellular network’s DATA connection instead of over the normal cellular network voice connection.

The “secret” of using an iPod touch as a telephone is to install a VoIP app in the iPod touch. There are dozens of VoIP apps to choose from. Probably the most popular VoIP app for cell phone and iPod touch systems is Ooma at (see https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/ooma/id1074074904?mt=8.) However, there are many more, including Skype, Zoiper, Bria, 3CX, Truphone, Voipium, Viber, iCall, Talkatone, and many more. In fact, from the time I publish this article until you read it, additional VoIP apps may appear on the App store. New ones appear frequently.

Some of these VoIP apps include telephone service (see Ooma) while others are simply apps that can connect to some VoIP telephone service you already use (such as Zoiper or Bria). Make sure you pick an appropriate app for your use. If you don’t know which one to use, I’d suggest you start with Ooma. It is a huge VoIP service with a good reputation, it includes telephone service, it has reasonable rates for toll calls, and its calls are even encrypted between your phone and the Ooma servers. (See https://www.ooma.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=19794 for more information about Ooma’s encryption.)

If you later decide to switch to a different VoIP service, it is easy to cancel your Ooma account and create a new account with some other service. “Moving” your Ooma phone number shouldn’t be an issue for a “secret phone.” If this is a concern for you, it probably is a good idea to get rid of any existing phone number and obtain a new number from time to time anyway in order to confuse anyone who is trying to track you!

Now that you have a VoIP app installed and working on some VoIP service provider’s system, you can use the iPod touch to connect to a wi-fi or Bluetooth system and then make and receive phone calls. As long as you are connected to wi-fi or Bluetooth, most of the VoIP apps will work in the same manner as a normal cell phone. You can make calls and you can also receive calls from anyone who knows your new VoIP telephone number.

I might suggest the security-conscious user also might want to install a VPN (Virtual Private Network) app in the iPod touch in order to encrypt everything transmitted to and from the iPod touch. This protects not only phone calls but also all data sent and received over the network or Bluetooth connection. See my earlier article, The Beginner’s Guide to VPNs, at https://privacyblog.com/2017/11/21/the-beginners-guide-to-vpns/ for more information. Several different VPN apps are available in the App Store for iPhones, iPads, and iPod touch systems. However, the use of a VPN is not required. It simply adds to your privacy and security.

Another advantage to using the iPod touch as your privacy phone is that it does not constantly broadcast your location in the same manner that normal cell phones do. Normal cell phones that have built-in GPS receivers frequently broadcast your latitude and longitude, plus or minus 30 feet or so, all the time they are powered on and connected to a cellular network. Law enforcement personnel, cellular telephone company employees, and hackers alike can easily determine your exact location.

Even if you use one of the few cell phones that do not have built-in GPS or if you turn your GPS off, cellular companies can still track your approximate location by using a process called “tower triangulation.” In short, the cellular companies’ towers report the signal strength of the signals received from your cell phone, even when you are not using it for making calls. At any given moment, two, three, or more towers may be receiving signals of varying strength from your cell phone. By using cell tower triangulation (3 towers), it is possible to determine a phone location to within an area of about ¾ square mile. See the Federal Communications Commission’s web site at https://transition.fcc.gov/pshs/911/Apps%20Wrkshp%202015/911_Help_SMS_WhitePaper0515.pdf for the details.

Since the iPod touch does not have a GPS and because it does not connect to cell towers, it can never be tracked by either of these methods. To be sure, in some cases it might be possible to determine your approximate location by determining which wi-fi network you are connected to. However, the use of a VPN will hide even that bit of information. For instance, if you are really connected to a wi-fi network in Dallas but using a VPN to connect to a VPN server in Hong Kong, anyone trying to find your location will see a report that claims you are using a phone located in Hong Kong.

We now have your iPod touch working well as a burner phone as long as you are connected by wi-fi or Bluetooth. That works well while you are at home or at any business establishment that offers wi-fi to its customers. But what do you do when you are outdoors? How do you use an iPod touch for phone calls when riding in an automobile or on the city bus?

Make and receive phone calls almost everywhere

OK, here is where the instructions become a bit complicated. To be blunt, not everyone will want to do this. However, if your privacy is really important to you, I suggest you should at least be aware of this possibility. It works well. I know, as I do this with my iPod touch. (Admittedly, I am a bit of a techie.)

Keep in mind that earlier in this article I suggested that using an iPod touch as a burner phone is practical only when it is used as a second phone. For this article, I will assume that you usually have your primary cell phone with you as well. In other words, you are carrying two devices: a normal cell phone and an iPod touch.

NOTE: Don’t worry. An iPod touch is a tiny device, much smaller than 99% of the cell phones I see. It easily hides in a man’s shirt pocket or a side pants pocket. Ladies don’t always wear clothes with pockets but generally do carry a purse or something similar. An iPod touch can hide in even the smallest purse.

Next, your normal cell phone must have the capability to function as a “wi-fi hot spot” or “Bluetooth hot spot.” (“Wi-fi hot spots” are more common. However, “Bluetooth hot spots” are also possible and probably add just a bit more privacy as most hackers won’t be looking for Bluetooth connections.) In other words, it must be capable of sharing the phone’s mobile data connection and “repeating” the Internet connection over the local wi-fi or Bluetooth connection. This is a very common procedure, typically done to provide a “wireless modem” connection for a laptop computer. While not as common, it can also be used to provide a wireless connection to the Internet for an iPod touch or any other device that only has wi-fi or Bluetooth networking capability. This process is commonly called “tethering.”

For a detailed explanation of all this, see the article How to Tether Your Android Phone and Share Its Internet Connection with Other Devices by Chris Hoffman in the How-To Geek web site at https://www.howtogeek.com/170302/the-htg-guide-to-tethering-your-android-phone/. The article refers to “Android Phone,” but the information also applies to iPhones. For specific information about doing the same thing with an iPhone, see How to set up a Personal Hotspot on your iPhone or iPad in the Apple Support web site at: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT204023.

NOTE: Using any data connection via your normal cell phone may create additional charges on your monthly cell phone bill, depending upon the contract you signed with your cellular provider. Some cellular companies offer unlimited data while others do not. Check the contract you signed for the details that you agreed to. Using a wi-fi connection from your in-home wi-fi network or from hotels, coffee shops, restaurants, and other businesses is usually available free of charge.

NOTE: Not all cell phones and not all cell phone companies have the capability to create a “wi-fi hot spot” or a “Bluetooth hot spot.” Most of the newer, more sophisticated cell phones do have the capability to tether other devices by creating a “wi-fi hot spot.” They may or may not be able to create a “Bluetooth hot- spot.” The cellular provider also has to cooperate and allow such connections. Some providers do allow this, but a few do not.

If you are unsure about the capabilities of your cell phone and/or cellular provider, contact your cellular provider’s customer service department or search the web for the information.

I can tell you that I have been using a Google Pixel 2 cell phone connected to the Google Fi cellular service, and it works well as a “wi-fi hot spot.” I have used it to connect my iPod touch, iPad, Chromebook, digital camera, and various other devices to the Internet. One of my relatives does the same to provide wi-fi service inside his mini-van to keep his children amused on long trips. The children and even his wife play online games, exchange text messages with their friends, use social networks, and more by connecting their cell phones, iPads, and other Internet-connected devices to the father’s cell phone via wi-fi to use his “wi-fi hot spot.” Such hot spots have many potential uses besides connecting a iPod touch that is used as a burner phone. However, you may not have the same capabilities in your present cell phone or cellular provider.

To connect the iPod touch to the cellular company’s Internet connection, enable “wi-fi hot spot” or “Bluetooth hot spot” in your normal cell phone as per the instructions in the above articles. Next, go to the iPod touch’s SETTINGS and then select “Wi-Fi” or Bluetooth, as appropriate. Use the menus there to connect to the cell phone’s “hot spot” that you just created. Your iPod touch can now connect to the Internet from any location where your cell phone has a reasonably fast Internet connection.

Next, open the VoIP app that you earlier installed in the iPod touch. That will be Ooma, Skype, Zoiper, Bria, or whatever app you installed. Now your iPod touch is a telephone!

Summation

In my experience, using the Ooma VoIP telephone service in the iPod touch and connecting to a Google Pixel 2 cell phone as a “wireless hot spot” on the Google Fi cellular service, the results have been excellent. There are no significant differences between phone calls made directly with the Google Pixel 2 cell phone versus those made with the iPod touch. Of course, any cell phone will provide poor connections when the cellular signal is weak, and that remains true whether using the cell phone alone or using it as a “wi-fi hot spot” along with an iPod touch.

Having a second “cell phone” is a luxury and also can be used to improve your personal privacy and security. The need for a second, or “burner,” phone varies from one person to the next, depending upon business needs and personal preferences. If you do want a second phone, adding it at lower prices than a normal cell phone can be very attractive. The choice is yours to make!

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