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Modern field guide to security and privacy

Burner promotion shows how much phone numbers reveal

The Burner Challenge from app maker Ad Hoc Labs lets anyone see how much data can be gleaned from their digits. It's a lot. 

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It can be unsettling to watch a computer spit out your personal information before it even knows your name. Especially when the information appears in a terminal font, superimposed over a map of your area.

That's probably what you'll see if you take the Burner Challenge, which uses your phone number to show you just how much information those digits can reveal – everything from names of acquaintances, to lists of old employers, to your current and previous addresses. And it's all gleaned from public sources.

The challenge is a promotion by Ad Hoc Labs, a company that makes a privacy app called Burner. It lets users create different phone numbers for different parts of their life. For instance, it will generate a separate numbers for thing such as online dating or a side business, according to Will Carter, cofounder of Ad Hoc Labs.

Mr. Carter and his team hope the challenge will give people a sense of how revealing a phone number can be. They obviously want people to try their app too. But they also want people to be more aware when they give out their personal information.

“Whether it's using our product or not using our product, it's an awareness thing and it's a repetition thing,” Carter explained. “You get in the habit of being aware of giving out any information, be it your address, your phone number.”

When this reporter tried the challenge, it returned on an old address. But when trying the number of a few close friends, the challenge came back with names, addresses, social media accounts, job titles, and even "known associates." The Burner Challenge obscures much of that information “so people can’t use it for evil,” as Carter put it.

While the Edward Snowden leaks revealed that the National Security Agency collects massive amounts of information about phone calls, there's also a cottage industry of data companies gathering up information based on individual phone numbers. And how that information is actually used and sold is often a mystery to consumers. 

“The digital footprint isn't something that's just controlled by Facebook or just controlled by a Google Image search,” said Carter. “A phone number is a pretty unique identifier. There's not a lot of chance that if you go and Google a 10-digit number, that there's going to be results that aren't related to your number.”

Despite its name, Burner is not likely to catch on among drug dealers or CIA agents. Every new phone number a user creates links to their phone. While Burner promises not to sell that information, their privacy policy lets them give it to police, emergency services, or legal guardians. The app is about creating privacy between users, not between a user and their government, according to Carter.

But Burner isn’t just about privacy. It’s also a shift in how we think about phone numbers.

Many people already have separate e-mail addresses for work and their personal lives. It is also common to create temporary e-mail accounts for events, online roommate searches or job hunts.

Carter hopes Burner will make that just as common with phone numbers. The app is like a reverse Google Voice, splitting a single phone into several identities instead of the other way around. That might catch on at a time when work phones and home phones are disappearing in favor of a single cellphone.

For Carter, Burner is about giving people the ability to have greater control over the different parts of their life.

“People are very aware of that for e-mail,” he said. “I think we're sort of trying to get that sense of, hey, there can be different channels and identities for your phone number, as well."

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