PRIVACY RECIPE: Creating an online persona

New Yorker Magazine

Step 1: Get a phone number that is not tied to your personal information.

In creating a new online account, you often need a number to receive a verification text or call before you can use the account. Because you need this number to control the account, you can’t use a public phone or a friend’s cell phone number. You want a dedicated number with which only you can make or receive text messages. This number needs to be really hard to trace despite all the tracking methods online services use these days. For this privacy recipe, to generate this number we recommend using a tool called Twilio. Twilio numbers check all the boxes above, and compared to other services are less expensive to maintain. To set up Twilio we need a phone number and an email address. We will walk you through a way to sign up that most preserves your privacy. Let’s start with phone number. There are two ways to get a number: buy a SIM card or get a virtual number. We recommend buying a SIM card as it leaves the least digital trace.

IMAGE SOURCE: “My Phone Bought This” by oliver t is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
  • Cash payment allows for anonymity.
  • You can maintain the number by recharging or topping up regularly in cash.

Important notes on your device

There are a few important things to know before you use this SIM card on a phone, or use the phone for your online activities. First, you want to avoid using the same phone for both your everyday SIM card number and the “privacy-enhancing SIM card”’s number. If you are doing so, there are at least two ways others can link the “privacy-enhancing SIM” card back to your identity.

  • Another way is to track your phone’s IMEI number. Every phone comes with an IMEI number. This number can be deemed as the serial number of your phone. Same as the behavior between numbers, telcos can use a phone’s IMEI number to connect ALL SIM cards used on that phone.
  • Use an old phone that was previously used by someone else. (ok)
  • Use your new online profile only on an app you haven’t already used on this phone. (meh/better than nothing)
  • Burner app: The smart phone app, Burner works as an alternative phone number. The app can make/receive calls and send SMS. Using a US or Canada number.
  • CoverMe app: Works like Burner but claims to secure your messages so the staff at CoverMe can not read them. Includes a few other tools and features besides a virtual number.
  • Hushed app: Works like Burner but offers international numbers and calling. Not all numbers offer the same functionality. Most have SMS and Voice call as an option.
  • Skype in/Skype out: Offers international numbers and calling. High quality audio.

Step 2: Get an email address detached from your real identity

Another important step in creating a new online persona is to have an email address that doesn’t trace back to you — a “privacy-enhancing email address”. We will need it regardless of which path we take to set up new private accounts. Registration on most services requires proof of email and SMS verification.

Important preparation: use a VPN to protect your privacy online

The steps below involve visiting web pages. We recommend visiting these websites with a privacy enhanced browser like Tor browser. If you can not use Tor we recommend using Brave in a ‘Private Tab with Tor’ or Firefox in ‘Private browsing’ mode with Privacy Badger & Https Everywhere extensions for Firefox installed. We also recommend you use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that is not linked to your identity by name or payment style. BITMASK is a free VPN available for android, pc, mac. Another option is to install PSIPHON, a Canadian based free VPN-like tool. Caution that some “free VPN” services are not free or horde your logs and data instead of flushing them. You may want to look into a reputable commercial VPN that allows you to mail them cash, such as Mullvad, or accepts Visa gift card. To learn more about VPNs, read this article on Wirecutter. For the purpose of this guide, if you have trouble visiting a site via VPN or the recommended VPNs don’t work in your country, visit the sites from a public wifi at a busy location (park, mall, popular cafe, etc).

REMEMBER: Tutanota terms of service says ONE free account per individual.

About gift cards

Gift cards and the rules around their sale and use are different depending on what country you are in and what area you live. As a general rule you want as simple a gift card as possible. Do NOT buy a reloadable gift card. Do NOT buy a cash supported bank card. Try to find something like this Vanilla Gift brand birthday gift Visa card. They allow you to assign a zip code to purchase items online by logging in at https://balance.vanillagift.com

Step 3: Set up a Twilio number for creating untraceable online accounts

Creating an account on twilio.com

Browse over to twilio.com and click on “sign up” you will see the registration page. Remember not to put any personally identifiable information when you fill out the form. You can use alias for the first and last name, and the privacy-enhancing email address from step 2.

Email verification is designed to prevent automated and fake email sign ups.
YOU DID IT!
You need to upgrade your TWILIO account to do anything else.

Bonus step: Start a Telegram account with Twilio number

Setting things up on the Telegram (or other app or website) side.
Install the app on your phone (you can go back to Step 1 for the detailed tips on phone device). In this example we will set up a TELEGRAM account and use it to make a broadcast message. The same steps work for Signal, Whatsapp, etc.

You will start here
All Products and Services (…)
API EXPLORER allows you to see the data flowing in or out of your TWILIO account.
PROGRAMMABLE SMS is the screen that shows all things related to text messages.
MESSAGES can be found under PROGRAMMABLE SMS is the area that lets you handle SMS text and images.
MAKE A REQUEST to find the message from TELEGRAM and retrieve our verification code.
A 100% computer generated face using the ROSEBUD.AI tools at Generative Photos.

Frequently Asked Questions…

I was able to set everything up but never got a text from the app I want to use, what can i do?
The app you are using may be sending you the activation code from a “shortcode” service, and not an actual long number/phone number. Twilio can accept shortcodes but this is a feature that support must turn on for you. What is a shortcode? Twilio defines them as “A short code is a special 5 or 6 digit telephone number that’s shorter than a full phone number. Short codes are used to send and receive SMS and MMS messages to and from mobile phones.” . Log in and use this form to create request that support, “enable your account(s) to receive incoming messages from short codes”. This has effects on how your twilio account will work from that point forward. You may want to read more about this before making the request. I recommend it if you need to use that app. Try again and see if you now receive an activation code.

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