Burner: The App Inspired by Drug Dealers

I vaguely remember life before I had a cell phone. One day, my parents made me sit down with them and memorize important phone numbers in case I was ever in an emergency. This meant memorizing “mom’s cell,” “dad’s cell,” “dad’s work,” and “home.” As a kid, remembering all four of these nine-digit numbers was rather difficult. God forbid I ever encountered an emergency, because I probably would have dialed numbers at random on a landline. If I were a cell phone deprived child nowadays, things would be much easier. This is because the overarching trend is that people only have one phone – a cell phone. This means that people now only have one phone number associated with them.

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We just love our cell phones.

Greg Cohn, the cofounder of the new app called Burner, sees this as a problem. We treat our phones like our children and carry them around with us all the time, but we are constantly being asked to give away our precious phone numbers. With the rise in ecommerce and online dating, our phone numbers increasingly function as business and relationship tools. However, these interactions are commonly with complete strangers who we do not necessarily trust with our personal numbers. These are the issues that the Burner app is looking to solve. Just like drug dealers are able to use burner phones in order to effectively safeguard themselves during a business transaction, the Burner app gives its users a level of privacy and protection.

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The new Burner App.

The Burner app looks to turn an idea typically used by individuals involved in nefarious dealings into a reputable business. The app works by providing users with a phone number for each of their identities. 43% of users have created a burner number for buying and selling sites like eBay and Craigslist, while 44% have made a number for online dating. Another 20% of users have also created one for an unintended use: to receive a local number if they have just recently moved. Once the interactions that these phone numbers have been used for have either come to a close or have advanced to the point where the other party can be trusted with your real cell phone number, the user can then choose to discard of their burner number.

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Goodbye phone!

For those who use their burner number when online dating, this added layer of privacy would be beneficial for if the relationship ends badly. For those who use it for business transactions, having a temporary number would help avoid situations where unknown individuals do not stop calling or messaging you directly on your cell phone. Burning your phone number is quick and allows you to effectively move on and cut ties. While this all sounds like it could be helpful, I see potential downsides and another alternative that is already built into cell phones.

The first concern I have about this app is that it will encourage people to take on false identities and become more nefarious. The app provides a seamless platform for managing all of your identities, and I would imagine some people would use this app in order to pretend to be someone else or to take advantage of remaining private. For example, if my prankster friends were to get ahold of this app and acquire a burner number, I know for a fact that they would assume someone else’s identity and try to catfish me (these are the same friends who release my phone number under the comments section of celebrities’ Instagram pages claiming that my number is the celebrity’s leaked cell phone number, all so that I get calls from fans who want to speak to their beloved Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift. My friends are complete trolls.) Burner would likely face a lot of backlash from both the public and legal entities if it becomes the host that enables this sort of behavior.

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A prank phone call classic that I would like to never hear again.

Another concern I have is the larger affect that this would have on cell phone carriers assigning phone numbers. Since North American phone numbers consist of 10 digits, there is an estimated 7,919,900 possible phone numbers. The current population of North America is 528.7 million, so clearly there could be an issue if the people who use Burner claim too many different phone numbers.

Personally, I think that this app poses a significant danger and is not all that necessary. Rather than downloading this app and claiming different numbers, I would personally just share my personal phone number with strangers if the transaction seemed worth it. If a scenario arose where the other party was infringing on my privacy, I would simply block their number – seems like a simpler solution to me.

Do you think this app is necessary?

 

17 comments

  1. Really interesting post. In Spain we have 9 digit long numbers but all of them start with number 6. If you add the country code it would be +34 6XX XXX XXX. That means that there actually are 99 million possibilities for an almost 48 million population country. That means, there are as many as twice the amount of phone numbers as individuals. Keeping in mind that there are many numbers that can’t be used, work phone numbers etc, We can realize that there are not many possibilities. So some companies started offering phones starting with the number 7, that creates a whole new series of almost 100 million numbers.
    I don’t see the point or use of the app. If you want to have more than one cell number for any reason, you can just pay for it as every other user. Nice job in going through all the possibilities.

  2. First, sounds like you need new friends. Second, it’s really interesting that you came down with the conclusions that you did when you made such compelling arguments in the front part of the post. It’s not that they are different identities, but they just serve different purposes. I also see a benefit in that the burner # is never associated with a physical address. The downside I see is that they’ll certainly recycle numbers and you’re bound to inherit the previous owners problems when you get the number. That may not be a big deal for an online dating site, but it might be a problem if you start getting calls from a collection agency.

  3. Great post. I had never heard about this, but I think it’s really cool. I definitely see how it could be useful, but I would worry about recycling numbers. I’m not so concerned that we’d use up all the numbers, but I would hate to inherit someone else’s numbers and continue to receive their calls. You could end up in a situation like this guy: http://www.people.com/article/seattle-man-sir-mix-a-lot-old-phone-number

  4. Personally, I don’t think that this app is necessary. Although I feel like I’m always giving away my cell phone number (say to purchase an item online) it is rare that a company will call me. In my personal experience most businesses use email as opposed to contacting people on the phone. In terms of the online dating issue I think that if you’re agreeing to go out with someone odds are you trust that person enough that they should be allowed to call your real cell phone number. I agree with your point that if things went seriously wrong it is easy enough to block a number or to delete that person from your contacts. I also think that users could become easily overwhelmed when they have texts coming in on both the burner app and on their regular number.

  5. Loved your post. I was also quite surprised by your conclusions since you’ve given such strong arguments in favor of the app. Anyway, I actually like the concept of the app, especially, as this article states in the age of the contract economy of Uber, Airbnb and more http://www.theverge.com/2014/12/18/7414869/burner-phone-theres-an-app-for-that Eventually it’s cheaper than having a second phone and it’s very useful if you need to use the same phone for several different purposes. False identities can anyway be taken on thanks to private phones for instance. Maybe this makes it easier but banning the app is not going to prevent that phenomenon anyway.

  6. Great post, I had never heard of this app so I really enjoyed reading about your research and the conclusions you came to. With any app or service there is bound to be those who use it for good and those who use it for bad. In this case, I think the positive aspects that you outlined in the beginning of your post outweigh the possible criminal implications. I found your last point about possibly running out of phone number combinations especially interesting. At some point ‘Burner’ number combinations would have to be re-used, meaning any nefarious dealings they might have had connected to them would simply be linked to the next person assigned that phone number. I think this could potentially undermine the entire point of trying to get a random phone number.

  7. willybbolton · ·

    Really enjoyed this post. I like the idea of this app for some of the reasons you mentioned. Using the numbers for online dating or business transactions seems helpful. Although you can block someone’s number, it seems less stressful to just burn a number if you didn’t want to talk to someone. I can also see the dangers of using a fake phone number to prank or misrepresent someone.

  8. Awesome post! My friend was actually explaining this app to me the other day and I was rather shocked something like this even exists. I completely agree with your concerns for this product. I think it could cause an issue with creating phone numbers as well as invade privacy. Having the ability to create new phone numbers only defrays the benefits of being able to block someone. If you have a crazy ex boyfriend or a business transaction has gone wrong, you no longer can block this person if they continue to come up with new numbers to contact you. Although I think it could be beneficial if you are selling products on EBay or Craiglist because it is a one time stunt, I think the cons outweigh the pros for this app.

  9. Really great post, Ashley! This is a very interesting concept that I had never considered. The implications of the app’s use are definitely difficult to foresee– my initial thought was about whether there would be enough demand for this to really warrant the app, and your arguments against it made me pretty skeptical too. You make a really good point that being prudent and just blocking numbers are sufficient solutions to the problem supposed by the app, and I can definitely also see people using it for pranks and more nefarious things rather than security. More security, especially when it comes to our identity, always seems like a good idea, but it seems like this app is more of a cool concept than truly useful. Honestly, I’d probably just take my chances using my own number rather than go through the trouble of setting up additional numbers for different interactions and having to manage them.

  10. I think it is a very cool app and concept especially for tools such as online dating and ecommerce. However, I think that there are so many messaging apps out there with phone call features and you can also create alternative email addresses so I think that this app is not necessary. In addition I think that the potential downsides and consequences like running out of phone numbers, faking identities, and using the app for illegal dealings might outweigh the increased privacy for the user.

  11. hahah first I have to say who needs enemies with friends like yours. I think the app is an interesting idea, do your point I can see how there is going to be a downside in that people may play themselves off as others. But on the other hand I can think of a number of situations recently where I haven’t wanted to give my personal cell out to people but I have. I think there should be some sort of cost to creating identified to mitigate the risk of too many being created, but overall I don’t see the problem with it

  12. Great post, and I personally agree with you that this app doesn’t seem all that necessary. Off the top of my head, it seems like there are many more negatives than positives surrounding the use of Burner. Like you mentioned, I have a friend who has used this app several times to try to prank or catfish people in his fraternity at school, and while they seem like harmless pranks from afar, I can definitely see how they would get annoying very quickly. It also seems like a very easy way to participate in illegal or frowned upon activity (drug deals, cheating on spouses, etc.). While I can definitely see why some people would want to use the app for things like eBay or online dating, I think the prevailing risks overpower the benefit of user privacy.

  13. im really digging the concept behind burner and can already think of some great uses for it. I have given my own phone number out to a lot of people and i know it has made its way around the data market places. I am already receiving frequent calls from telemarketers. Being that the side effects of changing a personal phone number can be so severe, it would be great to have a temporary number that i can dispose of in a few months.

  14. This is too ironic because I downloaded this app last week! My little brother informed me of this app he could use on his iPod, to text so I decided to play around with it. The positions the app could be used as pointed out above are very accessible. The concept is cool, but if there could be any sort of screening would surely prove to beneficial. Nice read!

  15. I think the issues you raised are definitely valid but I think this app will solve a lot of issues that come with a virtual identity that follows you into the real world. Using your phone number on sites, especially dating sites for women, can be very dangerous. There are websites out there where if you pay for it, it will show you the address and personal information of the person. This is scary to this about the repercussions and I think this app will provide peace of mind to a lot of people who put their numbers online.

  16. You did a great job weighing the pros and cons of this new app! I think it’s a great idea for separating a personal number from a work number. My dad has a similar application on his computer that he uses for work when he’s traveling out of the country. Instead of racking up a hefty phone bill, he picks his American cell number when calling people in the states, and a local number when calling people in the country he’s currently in.

  17. Very interesting post! Never heard of this app until now, but I think I tend to side with you on this topic that it is overall just not a very useful app. Not only because it incentivizes people to act in more sketchy ways, but also there are alternative measures that don’t require getting an entirely different phone number. It’s not a new idea, as you mentioned, but it is a prevalent issue – although I don’t find myself receiving spam phone calls and texts as much as I do receive unwanted emails. In this sense, this app is just like the equivalent of setting up a new email account that can receive all messages from sites that you maybe use once but have to give an email account to.

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