Protesters have taken to the streets in a number of cities to demonstrate against police brutality after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, died when an officer pinned his knee against Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. The officers involved have been arrested and charged, but police continue to escalate forceful measures against protesters exercising their First Amendment rights.
The following is a quick list of suggestions on how to protect your digital privacy as you exercise your right to protest. To get more information on each one, read on. You should note that given the US government's arsenal of surveillance tools, these recommendations aren't foolproof, but they're important safeguards if you're heading to a protest:
Don't bring a phone.
If you do, use a burner phone with encrypted apps.
Keep your devices on airplane mode, or turn them off.
Turn off location services.
Use burner online accounts.
Wear a face mask.
Use the Tor browser.
Don't bring a phone
This is the most obvious piece of advice, and depending on your needs at a protest, either the best or worst suggestion to make. The best way to keep your device from being spied on is to leave it at home.
Law enforcement agencies have multiple tools they can use to search for and identify people based on their phone signals, and police can also confiscate devices during arrests. Even if your phone is secured and locked, police have also shown that they can use third-party tools to break through passcodes.
Watch this: How to protect your phone (and your privacy) at a protest
But a phone is an important tool during protests -- to film acts of police brutality, to have a lawyer's number on hand and to keep in touch with updates during demonstrations.
If you absolutely need to bring a phone, which is a completely reasonable position to take, then...
Use a burner phone with encrypted apps
Consider investing in a handset that's set up for attending protests. For an extra level of security, you should buy the device using cash rather than a credit card that can be traced back to you.
You can also use an old phone you have lying around the house rather than buying a completely new one, but if you do that, you should make sure the phone is wiped and doesn't have any personal accounts tied to it.
Just because it's a new device doesn't mean you can't be tracked on it. Text messages and phone calls are still vulnerable to interception by IMSI catchers.
If you must have biometrics enabled on your protest device...
Get familiar with Emergency SOS
On a device running iOS 11 or later, Apple has a mode called Emergency SOS, which, once activated, will no longer accept biometrics as an option for unlocking the device. You can also add emergency contacts on the service to call for a lawyer.
If you're using an
or earlier, you can activate Emergency SOS by pressing the power button five times fast. If you're using an iPhone 8 or later, press and hold the power button and one of the volume buttons.
Back up and encrypt your device
Keeping your device backed up is a good safety net in case it gets lost, stolen or confiscated during a protest, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation warns. If the data is backed up and the device is out of your hands, you can remotely delete the data on the burner device and restore it on a later phone.
You should also encrypt the data stored on your phone, which is done by default on iPhones after you set up a password for it.
Some Android devices come encrypted already, like Pixel phones. If you want to make sure you're secured, you can do it by going to your Settings, then Security and tap on Encrypt Phone. The process can vary based on what Android version you have and who the manufacturer is.
Keep your device on airplane mode
Unless you're livestreaming or constantly posting updates online from the protest, you should keep your device on airplane mode to ensure the least amount of data leakage possible. Your phone is constantly giving off signals that can be tracked, from cell service to Bluetooth to Wi-Fi.
Those are all signals that are used for location tracking by law enforcement, and putting your device on airplane mode is the best way to minimize this. You can turn signals back on for specific purposes, but it's best to leave them off so your phone isn't passively giving away your whereabouts.
If you need to be connected at all times, at the very least, you should...
Turn off location services
This is an obvious one, but it's important. Location services are what tie your phone to other apps. So even if your data is encrypted locally, if you have location services activated, apps like weather services and
will still be able to grab your information, and police can get that data through a warrant.
While police need a warrant to obtain that data, advertisers and location data brokers don't. A Wall Street Journal report found that political groups have been using phone location data to target ads to people who were at protests. Joshua Anton, founder of the location data company X-Mode, said in a post on LinkedIn that the company received multiple requests for data around protests and refused to provide that sensitive information, but other companies may not have the same ethics.
You can turn off location services on Android devices by going to Settings, then to Location, and toggling that off. On iOS devices, go to Settings, then Privacy, and Location Services.
This is especially important if you're using any
apps. Police have increasingly used a search request called a geofence warrant, through which they can ask for data on all devices in a specified area. Google can comply with those requests only if Location History is enabled.
Again, if you do need to keep location services on...
Use burner accounts
Just because you're using a service doesn't mean you need to have it tied to your name or main account.
You can set up a new account from a place with public Wi-Fi to obscure yourself even further. So instead of tweeting updates from your personal account or livestreaming, you can create a new identity online tied to a phone number and network that has nothing to do with your normal life. The same goes for email or other messaging services.
Facial recognition companies have started working on being able to identify someone who's wearing a mask, but until that's effective, these masks are your best bet at staying hidden from facial recognition. Face recognition algorithms are dependent on analyzing the areas right in the center of your face, and the masks cover up a significant number of those areas.
Protests don't just sprout up spontaneously -- there's a good chance you're finding them through an online search logged in your browser. Searching on private mode or in incognito mode isn't enough to protect your privacy, especially since internet service providers can still hand that information over to investigators.
You should use the Tor browser, which, though slow, has privacy settings with multilayered encryption to prevent internet service providers from seeing your data.