Burner’s Disposable Number Service Isn’t Totally Private

The new iPhone app Burner issues temporary numbers for people who want to keep their real one private. But don’t think you can use it to get away with anything illegal.

Burner, a new iPhone app that dishes out disposable phone numbers with an expiration date — for telemarketers, one-time purchases, and creeps at the bar — is receiving lots of attention for its “totally private” new service. Burner is hardly the first service to provide temporary phone numbers — it just makes the process more convenient. $1.99 gets you one number that lasts a week (unless you run through the 20 minutes or 60 texts faster than that), at which point you can buy more credits or an entirely new number. They’re using twilio, a cloud communications company, to generate the phonies.

People have already started using Burner like the modern-day bathroom stall, anonymously submitting their burn numbers with requests for dates/cuddling/sexing on the (unaffiliated) BurnerAppSexyTime Tumblr:

But the main reason Burner is receiving so much attention is because it’s touting itself as “fast, safe and totally private.” It may well be the first two, but it is definitely not the last. Ars Technica points out that Burner will keep logs of all calls (though Burner wouldn’t specify for how long) “should there be a law enforcement inquiry.” Burner will, however, let the user know if there is a government inquiry, so at least you’ll have a heads up if the cops are en route to your house.

“The fact that they have pledged to notify users about government requests (unless prohibited from doing so by court order) is a good thing; they’re not required to do this,” Christopher Soghoian, a privacy researcher and activist, told me via email. “However, if they were actually providing a ‘totally private’ service, they wouldn’t have any data for the government to try and get.”

If Burner didn’t keep any logs, there probably would have been some serious police backlash, as an uptick in untraceable numbers would make it difficult for them to track drug dealers or investigate activists, said Soghoian. “There is of course no law requiring the folks behind Burner to protect their users from The Man, but if they’re not even going to try to, they shouldn’t promise their customers that the service is ‘totally private’.”

Bottom line, you shouldn’t use Burner under the guise of anonymity in hopes of getting away with some sort of criminal activity — but definitely use it if you ever meet this guy in real life and he asks for your number:

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