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Let's say I walk into a hardware store and buy a laptop and a mobile Internet router using cash. I then purchase a SIM card with Internet access and top it up with cash. After waiting for a couple of months (to make sure surveillance tapes of my purchases are long erased), I connect to the Internet using this setup from a high-density neighborhood where it would be impossible for the mobile operator to trace my exact location.

Is this setup safe enough that it's perfectly anonymous and impossible to trace post-factum? If so, why aren't more people using it and we regularly hear about users caught while using a home connection registered in their name?

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    only the owner of the connection is anonymous - once you log into Facebook, though.... – schroeder Jan 16 '17 at 11:59
  • @schroeder obviously so. But otherwise I don't see any flaws. – JonathanReez Jan 16 '17 at 12:04
  • I dont know if the phone keeps a log related to accessing the SIM card. The connection might be anonymous but traces may be left around, perhaps the connection to the carrier has info about the device... I haven't check on this though, just brainstorming – Purefan Jan 16 '17 at 12:25
  • @JonathanReez the flaw I'm seeing is how far you might be thinking the lack of tracking can go. You can make it difficult to track a current connection, but there are so many other ways that you can break your own anonymity. There are layers you need to think about. – schroeder Jan 16 '17 at 12:37
  • Potential issues: Buying laptop+mobile_router+sim costs significant amount of money, many people are not willing to pay that much for anonimity;; How exactly sim would be topped up?, that either involves using it (sending a sms with top up code) or doing it over internet in some way, which identifies the sim. – yyy Jan 16 '17 at 12:46
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Nothing is "impossible" to trace. What you're describing would certainly be difficult to track down, but not impossible.

In the early to mid 1990s Kevin Mitnick tried an analog version of what you're describing, with cloned cell phones and a cellular modem in place of modern digital mobile networks. Since he could change the cellular ID of his phone at will to another ID (and did every day), this is arguably less traceable than your scenario where there's a single subscriber ID associated with the mobile device. Mitnick also regularly conducted his own intelligence campaign against the police trying to catch him, going as far as to tap the conference calls of the FBI.

And yet with all this, Mitnick was caught (albeit with a large amount of effort fueled by media hype). He was eventually traced through his dialup access through Netcom, and physically traced to his apartment in North Carolina through directional radio. This was not a small amount of effort at the time and required a team of experts to accomplish, but it still happened.

These days there's no dialups, but we do have much more logins to services that never existed in the 1990s. It's certainly possible to use the same approach, and eventually trace back to a physical location to apprehend a suspect.

The point being, that given enough attention and effort, anyone can be tracked. There's always some leak of information somewhere, given enough time. Most recently Ross Ulbricht (creator of The Silk Road) was caught,not long ago Bin Laden was caught, and in the 1990s Unabomber Ted Kazinski was caught. All of these people carried out remote crimes and thought themselves to be invulnerable, but all were eventually tracked down from flaws in their own stealth.

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Question should be reviewed. What do you want to be "impossible to trace"? by whom? "post-factum" ... I will not ask what the factum is, but keep in mind that it's mainly this that leaves traces.

Some food for thought:

  • If the mobile router has Wi-Fi and has TR-069 Management, depending on its settings, you might give away Wi-Fi MACs that are in range. This is something many location services use (and log).

  • Cookies in the cache (if you use the same environment for streaming music or watching videos) can be used by (eg. by big G) to profile you quite well.

  • The word "trace" would imply movement tracking. That can be done pretty accurately actually in cellular networks nowadays, especially if you're not moving much. If you're moving to fast (yes, it's not a mistake) you can be identified, not only traced.

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If you used that SIM card on a phone, which previously had registered SIM card in it, service provider can match those two SIMs via IMEI, and, given the SIM is easy to change yet device is not, might identify you via the device. Not all GSM operators accumulate this data, yet most do.

  • Provided that you can change your phone's IMEI (I'm also interested on how to do that too :D ), this flaw is not relevant if you do it, or if buy your phone by cash somewhere else or far away from where you want to use the phone. Then, the next question would be: What are the other flaws that can allow you to be identified through ? – X.LINK Jan 16 '17 at 22:24
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something that i have not seen mentioned is that the mobile network knows where you are (approximately) so if you are enough of a tin foil hat (i don't blame you) you need to do what you are doing far enough away from cameras that you have plausible deniability and your activities must be done fast enough also for plausible deniability (eg if you do it between 2 cameras, the gap between being seen by the two cameras needs to be smaller than many other people so you are one of many people who were there during the whole time) but also for the people you are hiding from to detect you, contact the mobile operator to gain your location and get to your location.

This is a possible thing but there are better ways of gaining anonymity as mentioned in other answers.

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