After George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25th, protests against racial violence have broken out not only across the United States, but all over the world.
If you are heading to a protest, there are two main areas of safety to consider for you and those around you: physical safety and digital safety. The former is often a given — although COVID-19 adds an additional layer. The latter is often overlooked, but key to keeping not only your identity and personal information safe, but that of those around you.
While these methods aren’t foolproof in stopping someone — be it police or another bad actor — from accessing your data, the more you do drastically decreases the chance you’ll have this data used against you at a later point.
Here's some things to keep in mind...
This is perhaps the most important first step towards your safety, at a protest or in general life. But shockingly few people actually know what protections they have against law enforcement, especially if they are taken into custody.
It’s incredibly country-specific, but the UK and US have similar laws when it comes to police searching smartphones. Seizing a phone is a part of routine police procedure, and the evidence taken from that phone can later be used against you — this “evidence” could be in the form of texts, app messages (WhatsApp, FB, etc), call logs, videos, photos, and cell site data.
You should think of your phone as a part of your property, like your house or car. This means police need permission to obtain evidence from it.
In the US, when taken into custody, you can verbally state that you are declining the warrantless search of your phone. It’s then only possible for police to search your phone without a warrant if they can make a compelling case for an emergency. The Freedom of the Press Foundation goes into more detail here.
In the UK, anyone taken into custody is entitled to legal advice as to whether or not they should provide their PIN or password. Police may pressure you to provide your PIN or passcode, either by promising release or threatening further offences, but this isn’t true — like in the US, police need to apply for and obtain a court order (under section 49 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or RIPA). You can read more about your rights here.
Again, this will vary country-to-country, so make sure you read up on your rights before heading out to protest.
2. Maybe leave your phone at home?
The safest way to protect your digital information at a protest is to not have any digital information on your person at all — as in, leaving your smartphone at home.
This is a good idea for multiple reasons: first, things get broken. Second, one of the key reasons people take their phone is for communicating with others at the protest. But with so many people in a small area, cell phone reception will likely be spotty, meaning their only use will pretty much be to capture digital evidence that can fall into police hands.
It’s not for everyone, but seriously consider whether or not you should leave your phone at home, and coordinate a plan with others ahead of time. If you absolutely need a phone with you, consider buying a cheap burner phone, and if you absolutely need your smartphone, leave it turned off until you absolutely need it.
3. But if I don’t get arrested, how would police get evidence from my phone?
In the US, law enforcement have increasingly been using technologies, such as Wi-Fi hotspots or IMSI catchers, to find out identifying information about people in an area, including their mobile subscriber identity number and location. This could later be used as evidence in court.
IMSI catchers, or “stingray devices,” essentially impersonate cell towers, which then trick phones in an area to connect with them. IMSI catchers can track your phone and even intercept calls and messages, basically turning it into a live listening device. The US and UK police both use IMSI catchers.
One way to block radio communications is by using a Faraday cage. Faraday cages look like plastic pouches that you can put your phone in, and which block radio communications. Harlo Holmes, director of newsroom security at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, told WIRED that she uses and recommends the Mission Darkness Faraday bag.
4. Basic security stuff you should already be doing
Most people are really shit when it comes to personal security — and if you’re someone who uses the same password for everything, or uses “password” as a password, I’m looking at you.
What many people don’t know is that there are a number of extra security layers you can set on your smartphone that could keep vital information protected, even if it’s searched and seized by law enforcement.
First things first, disable your biometric lock. I understand it’s convenient, but it’s far easier for an officer to hold your phone up to your face or force your finger on the screen to unlock it than get your password out of you.
Second, set up a strong password on your smartphone. On most smartphones you can set longer passwords with both numbers and letters — here’s a how-to for iPhones and Androids.
If you insist on keeping your biometric lock, there are a number of anti-theft features that can instantly disable face unlock that work just as well with the police. Here’s how to quickly disable biometrics on your iPhone. It’s worth noting that it’s actually illegal in the US for police to force you to unlock your phone using your fingerprint or face recognition.
Also, when’s the last time you backed up your data? This is less about security and more about how much it would suck if something happened to your phone at a protest or in police custody.
While “encryption” sounds like it’s been ripped straight out of an Indiana Jones film, it’s an incredibly important tool to keeping your personal information safe.
In layman’s terms, encryption converts information into a secret code that hides the information’s meaning. For more info on how it works, the Electronic Freedom Foundation published a basic guide here.
If you’ve set a strong password on your iPhone, it’s encrypted by default. Android users need to make this change in their Security settings.
Also, consider switching your messages and group chats over to an end-to-end encrypted chat service, like Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp, Wire, or Wickr.
6. Be careful what you post
Social media has been a vital part of the Black Lives Matter movement and was a key part in spreading the truth of George Floyd’s death. It’s a democratic tool and a catalyst for change — but it can just as easily be used against you.
As Evan Greer, Deputy Director of Fight For The Future, tweeted:
7. Don’t post other protestors’ faces without permission
While it’s tempting to post photos and videos of other protestors, make sure you get their permission, especially if they’re easily identifiable. Keep in mind that police are actively monitoring platforms, and a well-meaning IG post can easily be used as evidence against someone else.
8. Strip all photos of metadata
Photos contain metadata, which reveal important information like the time and location a photo was taken, which can also be used as evidence. Greer tweeted the easiest way to strip the metadata from the photo is by transferring it to your laptop, screenshotting it, and posting the screenshot instead.
Protesting in times of COVID-19 makes safety even more complicated. Make sure you maintain a social distance, and cover your face — two birds with one stone: an anti-virus mask and shielding your face from law enforcement cameras and drones.
If you’re sick, stay home. There are many ways to show your support and contribute to the cause without putting others at risk of infection.
The above steps are largely based on legal conditions in the US and UK — make sure to research your country’s laws regarding information privacy and search and seizure. You can read more specifically about how to keep your personal information safe during protests in the U.S. here.
Keep safe fellow comrades!