People in all 50 states and across the world are taking to the streets, many for the first time, to protest against violent, racist policing. Demands for abolition are gaining traction and building more power everyday. But as the movement continues to grow, so do arrests among protestors.
We’ve seen police escalations in the last two weeks, with military police called into D.C., and the national guard deployed in cities nationwide. Local police have also made it clear that they are not here to protect protesters, instead assaulting them with tear gas and rubber bullets. And with arrests ramping up — at least 9,300 people have been arrested for participating in these uprisings — now, more than ever, communities actively must find ways to keep each other safe.
It’s important to know your rights before you get into the streets. That includes protecting yourselves and your data — and, by extension, your community — from state surveillance. And the surveillance of devices, which for many protestors are accessible at all times, is a large part of that.
There are two forms of police surveillance of devices at protests. One is all the data police can access in the event someone is arrested, detained, or have property confiscated. The other includes the surveillance of text messages, location, and other data. When attending a protest, it’s important to remember that phones can be weaponised against protestors since they carry personal information. And with that, there are safe and legal ways to avoid risking personal information.
While the best way to ensure better privacy at a protest is to leave your phone at home, there are a number of things protestors can do to ramp up digital and technological safety.
If bringing a phone to a protest is necessary — for documentation, to keep in touch with an affinity group, or both — it's beneficial to keep it off as often as possible or consider using a burner phone that is not connected to a personal identity and social accounts. Let’s be real, who isn’t logged into Twitter and Instagram 24/7 nowadays? Every app that runs on our phone collects and stores data, and in the case of arrest, all of that information could become accessible to law enforcement.
Another option is to keep cell phones on Airplane mode to disable communication with cellular towers, and if it's absolutely necessary to be in touch with people, use an encrypted messaging service like Signal. Digital security activists also suggest storing your phone in a Faraday bag, which can prevent it from sending and receiving signals that track a person's location.
Let’s talk more about arrests, though. If a protestor's phone ends up in law enforcement custody, they will have access to a lot of information — from phone call history and location, to messages, and even data that was deleted, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
One of the most basic security measures to avoid this is turning off facial and touch ID, and turning on passcodes to unlock a device. Depending on location, the law may treat biometric logins differently than a password-protected phone because the latter is typically protected by the Fifth Amendment. Likewise, if someone has a phone set to lock every 10 minutes rather than every time the lock screen is activated, the easiest way to enable a pin or password is by restarting your device.
In terms of keeping others safe, it is imperative to be extra careful about what content you post on social media. Police can identify people based on photos of their faces, tattoos, and other features that end up on the internet. Always assume that what you post is being tracked and reviewed by law enforcement. These photos can lead to the harassment and arrests of protestors.
As the Richmond, Virginia-based Antifa Seven Hills (ASH) told Study Hall, a media newsletter and support network for freelance media workers, photographs “become ammunition, confirming one's presence at a certain rally or protest, who they communicate with, and what groups and organisations they affiliate with.” They added that activists caught on camera might “face legal threats from police and the government” who use photographs and videos “as evidence to connect organisers to specific actions and locations in their efforts to criminalise dissent.”
To make matters worse, photos and videos also contain a lot of metadata, which is defined as the set of data that gives information about other data. Basically, photos and videos can contain metadata like timestamps and location information that, as mentioned above, can help law enforcement keep tabs on you and your friends.
Political movements like the current uprisings against policing are based in community self-defense. At the end of the day, a good digital security plan can make everyone a little safer when fighting repression in the streets.