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Surveillance Self-Defense: Attending Protests in the Age of COVID-19

In the wake of nationwide protests against the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we urge protestors to stay safe, both physically and digitally. Our Surveillance Self Defense (SSD) Guide on attending a protest offers practical tips on how to maintain your privacy and minimize your digital footprint while taking to the streets.

These demonstrations have taken place against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, so for many, public health concerns have added an extra dimension to the subtle calculus of when to stay inside and when to engage in street protest. This unique context provides us enough novelty to warrant a “reader's guide” to our normal SSD post on attending a protest.

Many of our tips for preparing to attend a protest remain the same: enable full disk encryption for your device, install an encrypted messenger app such as Signal (for iOS or Android) to communicate with friends, and remove biometric identifiers like fingerprint or FaceID. Under current U.S. law—which is still in flux—using a memorized passcode generally provides a stronger legal footing to push back in court against compelled device unlocking/decryption. Wearing a mask during a protest is certainly more commonplace (and advisable) this year, and it will also impede your ability to unlock your device with FaceID. This is all the more reason to remove that particular unlock mechanism.

The widespread use of face masks has prompted technology companies to increase research and development on novel methods of identifying people from footage. Biometric identifiers that can be observed despite facial covering, such as eyes and cheekbones, are increasing the track ability and surveil-lability of those on the street. Accordingly, be mindful when taking photos that include protestors and bystanders. Consider blurring out faces and other identifiable features like clothing, colored hair, and tattoos, and remove metadata from those photos before posting them. Taking basic precautions to protect yourselves and the protestors around you goes a long way.

If you are buying a prepaid cell phone for the protest, be sure to disinfect the device thoroughly. Digital devices are particularly nasty vectors for the spread of germs, especially if you’re purchasing them second-hand. Follow best practices for cleaning digital devices to stop the spread of the disease.

Caravan protests are gaining popularity as a way to remain safe while amplifying one’s message. While a good way to protect against COVID-19, it puts those protestors at increased risk of being tracked by Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs). Riding a bicycle or walking to the protest will help avoid invasive tracking technologies like ALPRs. Use the best judgement that applies to your particular threat model.

Gathering in large crowds increases the risk of protestors being targeted with weapons such as tear gas, which can cause severe respiratory problems and even spread COVID-19. If you have a burner device with you, be sure to save the number for an emergency health contact who will be available in case you need them.

At least 40 cities have now imposed curfews limiting the right of movement and protest for their residents. What’s more, at least one state has started appropriating the language of public health in an attempt to extend the application of surveillance technologies to protesters. At EFF, we strongly oppose efforts by the state to use COVID as a justification for extending the use of surveillance technologies that are already disproportionately targeted at communities of color. And as the protests continue, we will be especially vigilant against the government using the justification of “public safety” to introduce more invasive technologies on ordinary citizens.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay heard.



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