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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Test Run: Burner, a Mobile App That Gives You Disposable Digits

Early Monday morning I got a mysterious text message from an unfamiliar number. It contained two pieces of information: another unknown number and a winky emoticon.

A weird message or two is not enough to unnerve me, but something about the timing (7a.m.! On a Monday!) and the flirty face tacked on the end (anyone who truly knows me knows of my passion for emoji) seemed extra suspicious. I wanted to investigate further - but without involving my personal cellphone number any more than it already was.

So I downloaded an app called Burner that I've had my eye on for a while but hadn't had a reason to use. After you sign up, Burner supplies you with a disposable mobile number for those times when you need a little bit more discretion. You can to do with it what you please - like coordinate with someone on Craigslist to buy a used item, set up a blind date, freak out your friends and text strange numbers to see if you can uncover who is behind them.

Digital subterfuge, at least the temporary kind that Burner provides, will cost you: the app itself is $1.99 and comes prepackaged with 20 free voice minutes or 60 free text messages. Additional talk time and texts can be purchased through the app itself. But having a thin layer of privacy between yourself and the rest of the world, when needed, is hard to put a price on and it was worth spending two dollars to interact with two people I did not know.

For what its worth, I never got a satisfactory answer from either number. One recipient never responded, and the other said her name was “Cathy,” which, in an ideal world, could be more viral marketing for R. Kelly‘s hip-hopera collaboration “Trapped in the Closet,” but is more likely the result of a mistyped number or a misfired text. Either way, it was freeing and satisfying to be stealthy in a world where that is increasingly difficult.

Test Run will be a regular feature on Bits that looks at interesting and new mobile applications, gadgets and Web services.