Going to a protest? Here is your digital privacy survival kit

If you are thinking of attending a protest, take a few moments to review the EFF’s recommended strategies for protecting your digital assets and privacy in this blog post. It is  both an interesting document and a sad testimonial to the state of our present day that the document had to be written at all.

Here is the issue: police are increasingly counting on protesters’ cell phones to be used as evidence, so information on them — your contacts, your photos, your text messages — can be used against you. And not just during protests, either: border crossings can be problematic too. So as the scouts say, be prepared.

The suggestions span the gamut from things to do before you attend a protest, what to do during the protest, and what to do if you are arrested and if your phone and other digital devices are seized. EFF recommends leaving your regular phone at home and buying a burner that just has the Signal messaging app on it; Signal provides end-to-end message encryption, something that I spent some time thinking about. I put together a series of recommendations for business IT managers about how to enable and use this feature across other messaging services for SiliconANGLE earlier this summer.

One of the aspects of Signal is that you can use it to scrub the metadata from your photos. This is important if you intend to post any of the pictures online. You can also take screenshots of your photos if you don’t care about image quality.

There are other helpful suggestions too, such as taking pictures without unlocking your phone, and disabling the facial or fingerprint ID feature, in case a law enforcement officer forces you to unlock it. They explain: “Under current U.S. law using a memorized passcode generally provides a stronger legal footing to push back against a court order of compelled device unlocking/decryption.” They explain the difference between encrypting the data on the phone and encrypting an external SD memory card might require two different steps. And there are numerous suggestions on how to turn off location tracking, Bluetooth, and other radios. That may only be a temporary solution, however: once you turn these radios back on, your phone may send the stored data once you reconnect. The best solution is to turn your phone off entirely.

Finally, they sum everything up with this piece of advice: “It’s important to carry the bare minimum of data with you, and use the strongest level of encryption, when going into a risky situation like a protest.”

One thought on “Going to a protest? Here is your digital privacy survival kit

  1. I lived in Seattle at the height of the 2020-21 protests. The advice about cellphone privacy is technically correct, but on the other hand, I never saw anybody accomplish anything useful at a protest here where “cellphone privacy” helped prevent them from getting caught.

    Whenever a bunch of hooligans in Seattle decided to smash up a Starbucks, their cellphone privacy settings may, indeed, have helped them avoid incriminating themselves. But shenanigans like that not only did not achieve anything, they actually contributed to the backlash against the police accountability protest movement.

    When people did raise awareness of the need for police reform in Seattle, it was because they took the opposite route — documented incidents with their own phones and published the evidence under their own names for added credibility:

    – a kid getting pepper sprayed in the face because a cop was recklessly trying to get someone else with pepper spray, firing the spray into the crowd: https://www.kuow.org/stories/child-pepper-spray-case-seattle-police-accountability-office-finds-no-wrongdoing (plus a couple more examples in that article)
    – The footage someone shot of a cop deliberately running over someone’s neck at a protest: https://www.thedailybeast.com/seattle-cop-rolls-bike-over-fallen-breonna-taylor-protesters-head-and-neck-in-shocking-video
    – When I was arrested and talked about it after I got out, the Twitter thread went viral because my arrest report contained so many provably false statements (and in the end it came out that they had just copied and pasted the same statement into everybody’s arrest report, without caring if it was true or not, and as a result they accused me of being in a riot when I could prove I was somewhere else):
    – The video that I shot of a kid getting shoved by cops and arrested for jokingly danging a donut in front of a police officer:
    (the footage went viral worldwide and the kid later settled for $21,000)
    – The OTHER time I got arrested, for approaching a woman at a pro-police, anti-BLM rally, to ask her about a video that she shared of one of the BLM marchers getting beat up: https://www.facebook.com/the.bennett.h/posts/1955799617895292 . (Basically, the police started shoving me out of the rally when they realized I wasn’t on the “pro-cop” side, I refused to leave, and they arrested me. I’m currently suing the city on the grounds that it was a First Amendment violation because you can’t remove someone from a rally on public property based on what side they’re on.)

    But these gains in public awareness were mostly negated by the all the vandalism being carried out by people who delusionally thought they were in some kind of “guerilla war” (the kind of people who would have benefitted from locking down their cell phone privacy settings).

    So, when I hear protesters in the United States talking about “operational security”, I wonder if they have misunderstood the nature of the battle they’re fighting.

    (Of course none of this applies if you live in a more repressive country, where you are more likely to be arrested and charged for nonviolent political actions, so you might as well leave your phone at home to make it harder for them to track you.)

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