Law enforcement has more tools than ever to track your movements and access your communications. Here's how to protect your privacy if you plan to protest.
Assume that any digital evidence that you were at or near a protest could be used against you.PHOTOGRAPH: MARK FELIX/GETTY IMAGES
FOR THE PAST several nights, militarized police in cities across the United States have deployed armored vehicles and rubber bullets against protesters and bystanders alike. If you're going out to protest—as is your right under the First Amendment—and bringing your smartphone with you, there are some basic steps you should take to safeguard your privacy. The surveillance tools that state and federal law enforcement groups have used at protests for years put it at risk right along with your physical wellbeing. There are two main aspects of digital surveillance to be concerned about while at a protest. One is the data that police could potentially obtain from your phone if you are detained, arrested, or they confiscate your device. The other is law enforcement surveillance, which can include wireless interception of text messages and more, and tracking tools like license plate scanners and facial recognition. You should be mindful of both. After all, police across the country have already demonstrated their willingness to arrest and attack entirely peaceful protesters as well as journalists observing the demonstrations. In that light, you should assume that any digital evidence that you were at or near a protest could be used against you. “It's clear the government is bringing the full force of the surveillance state to monitor these uprisings,” wrote Evan Greer, the deputy director of the activist organization Fight for the Future, in a Twitter thread laying out digital security advice. “Remember that taking these steps isn't just about protecting yourself, it's about protecting others who may be more at risk than you because they are undocumented, have a criminal record, [or] have an underlying health condition that would make an arrest life threatening.”
Protect Your Smartphone
The most important decision to make before leaving home for a protest is whether to bring your phone—or what phone to bring. A smartphone broadcasts all sorts of identifying information; law enforcement can force your mobile carrier to cough up data about what cell towers your phone connected to and when. US police have also been documented using so-called stingray devices, or IMSI catchers, that impersonate cell towers and trick all the phones in a certain area into connecting to them. This can give cops the individual mobile subscriber identity number of everyone at a protest at a given time, undermining the anonymity of entire crowds en masse.
“The device in your pocket is definitely going to give off information that could be used to identify you,” says Harlo Holmes, director of newsroom security at the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
For that reason, Holmes suggests that protesters who want anonymity leave their primary phone at home altogether. If you do need a phone for coordination or as a way to call friends or a lawyer in case of an emergency, keep it off as much as possible to reduce the chances that it connects to a rogue cell tower or Wi-Fi hot spot being used by law enforcement for surveillance. Sort out logistics with friends in advance so you only need to turn your phone on if something goes awry. Or to be even more certain that your phone won’t be tracked, keep it in a Faraday bag that blocks all of its radio communications. Open the bag only when necessary. Holmes herself uses and recommends the Mission Darkness Faraday bag. If you do need a mobile device, consider bringing only a secondary cell phone you don’t use often, or a burner. Your main smartphone likely has the majority of your digital accounts and data on it, all of which law enforcement could conceivably access if they confiscate your phone. But don’t assume that any backup phone you buy will grant you anonymity. Some prepaid phones require less identifying information than others—Holmes recommends TRAC phone and Mint Mobile over MetroPCS, for instance. If you give a prepaid carrier your identifying details, after all, your “burner” phone could be no more anonymous than your primary device. “Don’t expect because you got it from Duane Reade that you’re automatically a character from The Wire,” Holmes cautions.
"The device in your pocket is definitely going to give off information that could be used to identify
Regardless of what phone you’re using, consider that traditional calls and text messages are vulnerable to surveillance. That means you need to use end-to-end encryption. Ideally, you and those you communicate with should use disappearing messages set to self-delete after a few hours or days. The encrypted messaging and calling app Signal has perhaps the best and longest track record, but other apps like Wire and Wickr offer many of the same features. Just make sure you and the people you’re communicating with are using the same app, since they’re not interoperable. Aside from protecting your phone’s communications from surveillance, be prepared in the event police seize it and try to unlock it in search of incriminating evidence. The first order of business is to make sure your smartphone’s contents are encrypted. iOS devices have full disk encryption on by default if you enable an access lock. If you bring an Android phone to a protest, go to Settings, then Security to make sure the Encrypt Disk option is turned on.
Regardless of your operating system, always protect devices with a strong passcode rather than a fingerprint or face unlock. As convenient as biometric unlocking methods are, it may be more difficult to resist an officer forcing your thumb onto your phone’s sensor, for instance, than to refuse to tell them a passcode.
If you insist on using biometric unlocking methods to have faster access to your devices, keep in mind that some have an emergency function to disable these types of locks. Hold the wake button and one of the volume buttons simultaneously on an iPhone, for instance, and it will lock itself and require a passcode to unlock rather than FaceID or TouchID. Most devices also let you take photos or record video without unlocking them first, a good way to keep your phone locked as much as possible.
Minimize Your Surveillance Risk
You should also consider the clothes you’re wearing before you head out. Colorful clothing or prominent logos makes you more recognizable to law enforcement and easier to track. If you have tattoos that make you identifiable, try to cover them. And consider wearing a face mask—easy enough during a pandemic—and sunglasses to make it much more difficult for you to be identified by facial recognition in surveillance footage or social media photos or videos of the protest. If you’re driving a car, consider too that automatic license plate readers can easily identify your vehicle’s movements.
If you use a device to take photos or videos during a protest, it’s important to keep in mind how this content could potentially be used to identify and track you and others. Files you upload to social media might contain metadata like time stamps and location information that could help law enforcement track crowds and movement. Make sure you have permission to photograph or videotape any fellow protesters who would be potentially identifiable in your content. And think carefully before live streaming. It’s important to document what’s going on but difficult to be sure that everyone who could show up in your stream is comfortable being included.
"I’m really concerned about the potential use of social media surveillance to track down protesters or disrupt peaceful protests before they begin," says Allie Funk, a research analyst at the pro-democracy group Freedom House. "So people should be very cautious when they’re sharing certain information online like videos and pictures of fellow protesters. We know many police departments and other federal agencies have been monitoring platforms." Even if you take photos and videos that you don’t plan to post on social media or otherwise share, remember to still consider the possibility that this media could fall into law enforcement’s hands if they demand access to your device.
As protests continue—and as law enforcement and even the federal government escalate their response—be prepared too for forms of digital surveillance that have never been used before to counter civil disobedience, or to retaliate against protesters after the fact. That means protesters will need to stay vigilant—against digital threats as well as bodily ones. “This spirit of defiance and questioning is not going to stop,” says Holmes. “And definitely not as we march into this election season.”