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How to protect yourself when bringing your smartphone to a protest

If you plan on exercising your First Amendment rights to peaceful assembly to protest the injustices in the system, there are a few things you should consider to keep yourself as safe as possible. Things like knowing where you are going, how to get away if needed, and what clothes to wear, are all essential.

What’s also pretty essential is to think about how to secure your smartphone, not just from loss or theft but also from surveillance. You also need to plan for disrupted communications, as even without cell towers being jammed, that many devices in one place always slows down the network.

I mean, have you ever been to a sporting event or conference where the WiFi was crawling? The same thing applies to protests.

Assume you’re being watched

Image: Unsplash

Even in a huge crowd, your physical person can be tracked. All it takes is facial recognition technology to be used on images of the protest. That could be real-time, or it could be on images taken and posted to social media by protestors. Aircraft are routinely used for surveillance of crowds, as are drones and even more exotic things like X-Ray vans can be used.

Social media will also be watched and used to identify individual protestors. Consider this if you do decide to post any images while you are there. It might be a good idea to stick emoji stickers over faces or blur them out completely before you post. It’s not just your safety at risk.

Assume your wireless communications are also watched

Physical surveillance isn’t the only way that you’ll be tracked. Your smartphone is a treasure trove of data for anyone looking to identify you or bring charges against you. Stingrays can trick your phone to connecting to them instead of the local cell towers, so the authorities can siphon off information (such as SMS messaging, identifying information, and more) without you knowing.

Your wireless provider can also be asked for information on your movements, all it takes is a request from the police or other authorities. Any intelligence gathered about protestors would then be used to create relationship charts and other information for future monitoring efforts.

WiFi can be tracked just as easily as a Stingray tracks your cell service, and if you connect to an Open Network, the data you send across it isn’t encrypted, leading to an easy interception. The authorities aren’t the only ones you need to worry about here, as criminals also use this tactic to target crowds to siphon off bank details and other information that can be used to steal your identity or cash.

The other thing on your phones? GPS location data. The New York Times showed that this data can be bought by pretty much anyone, and reconstructed to show your movements. Yikes.

Or this one from The Guardian last month, which outlines how “anonymized location data from opt-in cellphone apps” was used to show the movements of protestors from lockdown protests. The upshot of all of this? Assume your phone is being tracked.

How to minimize that risk

police lining up against protestors

Image: Unsplash

So, you’re now aware that you and your mobile device will likely be tracked while you’re out at a protest. Knowing that risk is better than going out unprepared. Assume that you also might be detained by law enforcement, and any mobile devices you carry confiscated, searched, and possibly stolen. Whatever happens, once it’s out of your hands, your phone data is no longer yours and you have to assume that it has been downloaded for future analysis.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t take a phone. Aside from their utility as a communication device, most phones nowadays have a pretty capable camera attached to them, and that might be the difference between you having exculpatory evidence if you get charged with anything or not.

  1. Turn off biometrics: seriously, your Fifth Amendment rights don’t apply to biometric locks. Make sure they’re off and make sure you have a long PIN or password set instead
  2. Enable disk encryption: Most Android or iOS devices do this automatically if you enable a passcode, but double-check
  3. Remove any unnecessary apps: Treat your phone like a burner and uninstall everything but essential apps.
  4. Log out of any apps: Seriously, anyone can use your accounts if you leave them logged in. If you need access, try to set PIN codes for individual apps if possible
  5. Back up your phone: Make sure your phone is backed up, and make sure that the backup is encrypted and protected by a password and two-factor authentication
  6. Use encrypted communications wherever possible: Use messaging apps that support encrypted messaging, such as WhatsApp or Signal, set messages to expire automatically if possible, and if you need to send unencrypted messages, use prearranged codes instead
  7. Shut off WiFi: Just do it. You’re not likely to be in reach of a WiFi hotspot while inside a big crowd anyway, and any hotspots you might see are possibly honeypots created by cops or criminals
  8. Disable location services: You don’t need this on unless you’re trying to use your Maps app, and you should really have a physical map
  9. Disable Bluetooth: Yes, you won’t be able to use your AirPods, but nobody will be able to track you with Bluetooth either
  10. Turn off your data plan: If you don’t need it to be on, turn this off as well. It might hamper your ability to use encrypted communication apps but you can always turn it on briefly to check for messages, then turn it off again
  11. Turn your phone off completely: The best defense against wireless tracking is to completely turn your phone off unless you’re using it at that moment. This also makes it harder for anyone to access the data if you’re separated from your handset.

Use a burner phone

apps on a phone

Image: Unsplash

If you don’t already know why it’s a good idea to use a burner phone and keep your main phone at home, here’s a little refresher, illustrated by the below tweet from Unicorn Riot. There’s a little bit of tech called the Stingray that the police like to use to collect cell phone data in an area.

When they mount them onto drones, it’s then airborne and can potentially siphon up data from a huge area. Your cell phone data. That of the person next to you. That of the cell phones the cops are carrying. It’s indiscriminate and you don’t want your cell phone data, which is tied to a plan, and therefore a billing address, in the hands of the police.

The advice in the reply is also good. Use a VPN app to encrypt your data connection. Use a five-digit PIN, if your phone supports it, and turn off all biometrics (yes that means fingerprint unlock, Face ID, or Touch ID). Heck, it takes seconds to make a new Google account, and if you’re using a burner phone, you don’t want to sign in with your main account.

This phone should be using a SIM card that you paid cash for, so it’s not linked to your name. Even better, buy several, and use one SIM card per time you protest. You don’t want to be trackable back to your home, and having that burner SIM on when you get to your front door makes all of the efforts you’ve just gone to worthless.

On this phone, you should have as little information as possible. Only have the apps you absolutely need for communication. Don’t connect it to any of your cloud services. Only have the numbers in Contacts that are essential. Consider putting fake names here. If you need to log in to any app to use it, see if you can set a secondary PIN code to access it. Lastly, set up new accounts for all the apps you use on this phone, and never log in to anything you use on your normal phone with your main credentials.

Print out any necessary information

hotspot mapping

Image: CNET

We don’t mean to print out your contacts list, but there are a few things you should probably print just in case. That includes maps of the area you’re protesting in, or even better, buy a physical map of the area. Have prearranged areas to meet up with the people you went to the protest with.  It’s also worth working out some pre-arranged signals, so you don’t have to type out long instructions.

Oh, and turn your smartphone off when not being used. You can turn it on every so often to check messages or calls, but keeping it off minimizes tracking while also protecting your battery life.

Always have a plan

The biggest thing to take away from all of these, frankly scary, preparations? That being prepared and having a plan, then doing your best to stick to that plan, is the best way to avoid trouble. Think back to your childhood. The Scouts told you to “Be Prepared” and GI Joe told you that “knowing is half the battle.” That advice rings true whatever you’re doing, whatever age you are, and wherever you find yourself.

What do you think? Do you have any more tips for people looking to protect themselves while protesting? Let us know down below in the comments or carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.

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