Curtis Wallen is a photographer who explores the concepts of identity and privacy in the digital age. In the wake of the prosecution of hacktivist Aaron Swartz, he became interested in setting himself up with an alternate identity. Swartz's tragic demise added fuel to the fire. A lot of research and shady deals later, he had created Aaron Brown, who not only has an online persona but a driver's license and a unique face as well.
During the process he realized how difficult it is to keep his two identities completely separated from each other. 'It's simple to create a new persona on the Internet but it's very difficult to get it right. You constantly have to be careful that you don't give yourself away', Wallen told the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
His intense focus on traces - purposely creating traces for his new persona and avoiding traces that would link Aaron Brown to Curtis Wallen – made him aware of how much personal data his cell phone was giving away. 'I started looking into details on cell phone surveillance while I was working on Aaron Brown. It opened my eyes to how insidious these little things really are', Wallen said in een interview with Fast Company.
Your technology will betray you
So he started a new project to find out what it takes to make an anonymous phone call in our day and age. Thanks to Snowden we now know that much of electronic communications are collected and stored. One way to battle unscrupulous snooping is to go in tech-heavy with encrypted phones and private networks. But that, as the CIA found out in Italy, makes you stand out.
Wallen describes how the Italians were able to pinpoint the suspects of the 2003 kidnapping of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, an Imam of a Milanese mosque, which led to arrest warrants for 22 Americans believed to be CIA operatives:
'Italian law enforcement used network analysis of cellphone metadata to discover an anomalous closed network of approximately 30 phones. After closer analysis of the network, they were able to trace the movements of the phones parallel to known surveillance of Nasr, and then connect the network to the CIA', writes Wallen.
Hiding in plain sight
Taking his lesson from the CIA, Wallen decided to make a private phone call hiding in plain sight using only ubiquitous technology. These are the steps Wallen took as reported by Fast Company's DJ Pangburn.
1. Analyze your daily movements, paying special attention to anchor points (basis of operation like home or work) and dormant periods in schedules (8-12 p.m. or when cell phones aren't changing locations);
2. Leave your daily cell phone behind during dormant periods and purchase a prepaid no-contract cell phone ('burner phone');
3. After storing burner phone in a Faraday bag, activate it using a clean computer connected to a public Wi-Fi network;
4. Encrypt the cell phone number using a onetime pad (OTP) system and rename an image file with the encrypted code. Using Tor to hide your web traffic, post the image to an agreed upon anonymous Twitter account, which signals a communications request to your partner;
5. Leave cell phone behind, avoid anchor points, and receive phone call from partner on burner phone at 9:30 p.m.—or another pre-arranged "dormant" time—on the following day;
6. Wipe down and destroy handset.
That's what it takes to make one anonymous phone call in the age of electronic communications.