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Privacy at Protests

Civil or social protest is a way to make your voice heard. But there are more risks to participating in protests than ever, in part because of the digital world we live in. These risks require that you make special preparations and take specific precautions so you’re not causing or enabling your own problems.

Here are three goals you may want to set when participating in a protest:

  1. Staying physically safe
  2. Protecting your data and your assets, and
  3. Limiting the harm, hassle, and repercussions that result from your participation.

In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be any potential future ramifications for peacefully exercising your right to protest, but we may not live in an ideal world.

Below we’ll consider the steps you can and should take to accomplish these goals.

Your Mobile Phone at a Protest

Your smartphone – whether it’s an iPhone or Android – is the cause of most of these new risks. The phone that you carry with you constantly shares your location, is stuffed full of personal information, and enables you to electronically communicate with individuals, groups, and the world — all of that information can come back to bite you. 

The phones everyone else is carrying pose risks to them while adding to your risk (because they can send you messages and might take photos or videos of you).

To minimize your privacy risk, you need to shrink or eliminate your digital footprint. This will help you to avoid self incrimination, data loss, and personal harm. The best way to do this is to not bring your smartphone, or any smartphone, with you to a protest. 

Of course, these days that sounds extreme. Of course when attending a protest you’re going to want to be able to call someone in case there is trouble, and communicate by text and email – perhaps even use social media to track events and/or post your own images and experiences. But it’s worth considering these obvious benefits and uses of the smartphone against the risks and downsides of having one with you:

  • First and most importantly: If you bring your own smartphone, and don’t follow some or all of the suggestions below, your phone will create a permanent time-stamped record of your location. It does can do this in two ways;
    • Your cellular carrier gets your phone’s location whenever it is connected to their networks – which is whenever it is on and not in airplane mode. Police can request data about your phone’s location, or they can request info on every phone in a certain area at a certain time. This can implicate you even if all you did was be near an area where trouble of some kind occurs.
    • Law enforcement uses devices called ‘Stingrays’ to set up ‘fake cell towers’ that your phone will try to connect to and in the process shares identifiable information about your phone. There is nothing you can do to stop this if your phone is on and not in airplane mode. This too can be used to implicate you just for being near an area where trouble of some kind occurs.
  • Secondly, and also importantly: At a protest your phone has a higher than normal chance of falling in someone else’s hands, particularly police or other officials who might confiscate it, and if that happens then they hold and may be able to access all kinds of personal data – they can read messages, see where you’ve been and what you’ve purchased, and more – which can lead to other problems and allegations whether or not you’ve actually done anything wrong.

Here are five options for bringing a smartphone to a protest, ordered from the most risky to the safest.

  1. Bring your phone without taking any precautions. This option we do not advise. You will likely be marked in attendance by police surveillance, and you have no way of knowing what the short or long term ramification of that may be. You could have your phone lost, stolen, or confiscated and the data and accounts on the phone could be compromised. 
  2. Bring your phone, but get it ‘Protest Ready’. The worst option, but the one most people will do, is to follow the steps outlined below to safeguard your phone and limit its data use. This is the easiest option but offers the least protection against self-incrimination and major data loss.
  3. Bring your phone, but wipe it first. The next best option is to erase your phone, reset it with a minimal set of apps and data for the protest, and restore it back to normal when you return home (a more detailed how-to list is provided below). Doing this minimizes the personal data on the phone, and reduces the data anyone will gain access to from your phone – but it means you will still be sharing your exact location with your carrier and possibly the police when the device is out of airplane mode. This is better than doing nothing, but 
  4. Bring a burner phone (leave your phone at home). This is the path we recommend. You can buy an Android phone with a voice/data SIM card for $40-$50 which provides a fully functional phone, full communication capabilities, and you can load the apps you need to social media and messaging. But a burner phone makes the risk of your being identified just by being there very low, and limits or eliminates the risk of losing data if the phone is lost, stolen, or confiscated.
  5. Leave your phone home, go without one. This may be unthinkable to many, and may not be practical, but it’s a very good idea if you feel comfortable with it and can’t use option #2. You of course will lose the ability to communicate (except that everyone else has a phone and you can always borrow one), and you won’t be able to take photos and videos (but everyone else is doing that for you too.). Consider it; especially if you’re not going far, and really don’t expect any trouble. This is a simple and safe option.

Let’s look in more detail at the steps necessary for options preparing your phone, wiping your phone, and choosing to use a burner phone instead.

Prepare Your Phone for a Protest

This is the option most people will choose, as it offers a balance between privacy/security and convenience. This offers less protection to your data than wiping your phone or bringing a burner phone instead of your own. It requires some effort, means you’ll want to learn a few simple rules, and it give you a lot more protection than bringing your phone without any preparation. Plus of course it means you’ll have a phone to use for calls or messaging.

Here are the steps to take to prepare you phone before you go to the protest:

  1. Backup your phone.
    The chance that you’ll lose your phone, or have it taken from you, is higher in a protest than on your average day. With a backup, you can get a new phone and restore your data, apps, photos, and everything.

    Many phones perform a cloud backup every night, so this may be as easy as verifying that your cloud backup ran yesterday.
  2. Encrypt older Android Phones. If you have an older Android phone make sure device encryption is on. All iPhones and newer Android phones use full device encryption by default, meaning the data isn’t accessible without unlocking the device first, but older Android phones do not, making it very easy for authorities to gain access to all of their data if confiscated.
  3. Install a VPN (Advanced). Using a VPN on your mobile device prevents your telecom carrier from getting metadata regarding the apps and servers you connect to, or the websites you visit. This does not stop your carrier from knowing your location or that you’re using the device, but they will not know who/what/where you are connecting.
  4. Disable FaceID
    If you get arrested, or even into a ‘discussion’ with the police, you do not want your phone accessed if it’s confiscated. Courts have generally ruled that government officials cannot compel you to give them your password, but the law is not to clear on whether law enforcement is allowed to force you to place your thumb on your phone or to unlock it with your face.

    To do this, go to Settings > FaceID and disable ‘unlock your phone’.

    A slightly riskier move is to leave FaceID/TouchID enabled, but quickly put your phone into Emergency Mode when a ‘conversation’ with the authorities begins – if you have the time and presence of mind to do it. (on IOS, this means holding down the power and top volume button for 5 seconds.)
  5. Enable FindMy (iOS) FindMyDevice (Android). Not only do these apps help you locate your phone if it’s lost or stolen, they each have a Remote Wipe feature so you can delete the data and ‘brick’ the phone if it’s taken from you. Make sure you or someone you can call knows how to remotely log in and wipe the phone if it becomes necessary.
  6. Sign Out of Apps and Accounts (Advanced). If you want to make sure authorities can’t access data in your online accounts, open the social media accounts and other key accounts on your phone and sign out. This will stop someone from opening the app and getting access  to your old data and communications. Don’t do this for any apps you intend to use while at the event, but if you’re not going to use Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, you should log out. Also log out of any messaging apps you won’t be using, and log out of Google (avoid using it or Google Maps) during the protest is a good idea. (Try Apple Maps, it isn’t that bad anymore 🙂
  7. Pair Lock your phone with your computer (Advanced for iOS). This is a somewhat time consuming step, but it makes it impossible for authorities to access anything on your phone using forensic tools they may have to copy or remotely connect. The process is beyond the scope of this article, but details can be found here and here or search DuckDuckGo for more information.
  8. Don’t Broadcast. If your phone is with you, and capable of connecting to the internet or receiving phone calls, then it is broadcasting a signal that shares and verifies your location. You do not want this when attending a protest; police are known to collect those signals and there have been short term harms (police may show up at your home later and arrest you, perhaps for something you did not do) and a lot of long term risk (you may be in a databases of known protestors (or whatever they may call these databases).

    To avoid this, you have three options:
    1. Shut down your phone
    2. Put your phone in Airplane mode and disable both WiFi and Bluetooth, or 
    3. Get a faraday bag to store your phone in
  9. The cost of any of these is they render your phone inoperable – you cannot make or receive calls, send or receive messages, or share anything on social media. You can however use your phone to record audio or video when off or in Airplane mode. Keeping your phone off from the time you leave your home until the time you return (or get far away from the protest zone) is the only way to ensure that your phone ID will not be collected by the police.
  10. You can, obviously, turn your phone on occasionally to send or check messages. The police may not have Stingray devices monitoring you at all times but there is no way to know for sure. But when you send any messages or make any calls, your digital location is being recorded by your service provider and, possibly, by the app or service you use. So turning your device on, even briefly, will create a location record. But the less time it’s on and the fewer services you connect to, the better. 

Wipe Your Phone Before The Protest

This option gives you a lot of protection for your data, but does not stop your phone from sharing your location or being picked up by a Stingray or other devices used by the police. It takes some time and effort – probably 30 to 60 minutes before you leave and again when you return –  

Steps to Wipe Your Phone
  1. Run a new iCloud or iTunes backup of your phone
  2. Factory Reset your phone (link:
  3. Use an alternative AppleID if possible
  4. Install only the absolute minimum apps, no Google and disconnect iCloud
  5. Do not add any email or calendar accounts to your phone.
    1. If you have to use mail, log in via the browser, ideally, you’re avoiding using your main/normal email account.
  6. Do not enable FaceID/TouchID
  7. Disable Location Tracking
  8. Keep the phone in airplane mode with WiFi disabled as much of the time as possible
  9. When you get home Restore from earlier backup.

Bring a Burner Phone Instead

You want to have a phone when you’re protesting but why does it need to be your phone? There are $30 Android phones that work with $5-20 SIM cards that give you a brand new phone that is extremely difficult to trace back to you, yet will give you full calling capabilities, a camera for pictures and videos, and the option of installing and using all of your favorite social media and communications apps – but for maximum personal anonymity. This avoids a huge amount of the risk involved with bringing your own phone, for a relatively small financial price.

For maximum anonymity, two additional steps are recommended: First, purchase your SIM card anonymously (MINT brand is very good and inexpensive), either for cash at a local store or using an anonymous credit card if you’re shopping online (privacy.com, for example, allows you to avoid supplying your name or address for card verification) We also recommend having it shipped to someplace other than your home address. Second, use new/alternative accounts on the social networks and communication apps and do not log into your own existing accounts. You’ll avoid revealing your identity if the phone is lost or taken.

Remember, when you load apps and log into your own accounts you are connecting the phone and, more importantly, the data you send from the phone to you. The location data shared by the phone will not connect to you via the phone carrier (though it might via apps), but any date and time stamps on data you send will; for this reason it may be preferable to consider creating fake accounts to use on the phone.

Other Ways to Guard Your Privacy At The Protest

Regardless of which option you choose for your phone, if you’re going to have a phone in use at the protest you will want or need to communicate with other protesters, with friends not participating, or in an emergency. And you may want to post or use social media – below are tips and things to consider for each of these.

Choose Secure Messaging

The first risk in communicating, as discussed above, is that any phone connected to telecom and/or data networks records the location, so your location may be verified via your provider, or externally, if your phone data is picked up by a Stingray. When possible, use a burner phone or keep your device use to an absolute minimum and return to Airplane mode (WiFi/Bluetooth off) when not engaged in communication. 

The second risk is that your communications themselves may be intercepted or collected later. To avoid this, for direct personal communications (either voice calls or text messages), you want to use only platforms that use end-to-end encryption.

End-to-end encryption means that your messages cannot be accessed or seen by anyone except you and the recipient. There are quite a few platforms that support end-to-end encryption, but in order for them to work, both parties must be using the same software platform. Good choices include:

  • iMessage (can be used insecurely, that’s when messages turn green)
  • FaceTime 
  • WhatsApp
  • Signal
  • MySudo
  • Telegram 

To be very clear: do not use standard text messaging, or make regular phone calls: both may be intercepted, recorded, or collected after the fact by law enforcement. They will also time and location stamp you. Your communications with other protestors in particular should be encrypted – just so that nothing you say can be intercepted in real-time and is hard (or impossible) to confiscate and misinterpret later. Even if you do not plan to violate any rules or laws, you may be near events that cause the authorities to want your data.

Avoid Sharing Content

Publishing photos, videos, or news on social media data is a way to get the word out about your protest, either to help others be aware or to share your personal experiences and opinions. 

But you have to be aware of the cost; your social sharing creates a different kind of public record of your location (albeit less precise than having your location collected by your mobile carrier or the police intercepting signals from your phone itself.) This documentation of your location could get you in trouble. 

Beyond that, there are obvious benefits to recording events both for documentation and sharing. Within that frame we recommend the following:

  • Consider Cloud Backup. Assuming you don’t mind the bandwidth use (especially when on a burner phone using a paid SIM card) make sure that cloud backup is enabled so that your photos and videos are backed up to the cloud immediately when they’re saved, in case your phone is lost or destroyed.
  • Remove MetaData. You may want to remove the metadata from photos before sharing them on any social media platforms; metadata stored within photo files reveals your location, phone/camera information, and location. That might put you at risk, by identifying you or confirming your location at a specific time. There are ways to remove this data before sharing the images.
    • Use an EXIF removal utility – you can find them in the app stores or use a browser-based tool
    • Take a screenshot of the photo and share that instead of the photo from your camera roll.
  • Shoot without unlocking your phone. To protect the data on your phone, use the ability of iPhone and Android (verify) to shoot without first unlocking the phone. On an iPhone you can click the phone icon on the lock screen, or just swipe left from the lock screen. 
  • Disable Location Sharing on Accounts. On Twitter there is an account setting to disable location sharing, so each tweet you post does not include your location. Where possible make this change on all social platforms.
  • Remember sharing photos or videos of other protesters can identify and endanger them. You can blur faces if you share later, but sharing ‘on the scene’ images may produce evidence that is later used against other protesters. A complicated issue when filming police activity or any activity you want to document, but something to keep in mind.
  • Posting to your social accounts puts you on the scene. Consider the short and long term implications of your posts – if you are trying to limit your documented presence that may be defeated by public postings.

Personal Safety at a Protest

Your digital devices aren’t the only ones sharing data at a protest. Everyone around you is taking photos and shooting video, which means that your location and actions will likely be captured – assume constantly – so you need to prepare. 

Both authorities and social media vigilantes have used photos to identify people (via facial recognition software or other methods) who they think need to be questioned or shamed (respectively) based on these digital recordings, sometimes just because someone happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

To avoid being identified in photos/videos, try to hide all distinguishing characteristics from yourself and your clothes. Wearing clothing without logos or identifying marks, cover any tattoos or clearly distinguishing characteristics. In the age of COVID, you can wear a mask, which have proven quite difficult for existing facial recognition algorithms. So keep your mask on at all times for medical and privacy reasons. Dark glasses (or goggles or even impact-resistant goggles) are also a good idea, as are hats (because they block camera angles not because they themselves defeat facial recognition) and scarves. Another option is to carry and use an umbrella to shield your face from cameras.

Unfortunately simply attending protests recently, even with the most peaceful of intentions, has meant some risk of arrest or injury; police have been seen many times just deciding instantly that a crowd is in the wrong place and deciding to round them up.

To prepare for arrest or injury, assume that you will lose your phone and other belongings in the commotion or they may be confiscated and unavailable to you; write key phone numbers on your arm – emergency contacts, a lawyer if you have one. Make sure someone not attending with you knows where you were going and when you were expected to return.

If You Are Detained or Arrested

This is a post on digital privacy, but a some related advice we’ve seen from many other sources on how to behave if you get arrested:

  • Don’t say anything. Anything. Even if you believe you did nothing wrong.
  • Don’t unlock your phone. Wait for lawyers and court intervention.
  • Ask for a lawyer. Immediately. Even if you believe you did nothing wrong. It’s a good idea to your lawyers phone number on your arm in ink before you go, in case you need it.

Conclusion

Attending a protest is about standing up and being counted, and making your voice and opinions heard. But there is no reason to put yourself at more risk than necessary, nor to create more problems for yourself because of your participation or attendance. 

Stay safe.

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