Demonstrators gathered at a Portland Black Lives Matter protest raising their cell phone lights

Demonstrators raise their cell phone lights as they chant slogans during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Portland, OR. Photo by AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez

If you’re participating in—or reporting on—protests, keep in mind that any devices you bring are susceptible to damage, loss, or surveillance. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has documented the extensive array of surveillance equipment used by the police to track civilians before, during, and after protests. Law enforcement could confiscate your phone and hack it, for example, or secretly surveil your location, texts, and photos in real time. Here are some steps you can take to protect yourself and others.

1. Should I bring my phone?

If at all possible, leave your primary smartphone at home. Instead, bring a simple “burner” phone—i.e., grab an old backup phone, do a factory reset, then add back only essential phone numbers and apps. You should also make sure to leave devices that collect and broadcast information—such as your location, text messages, emails, and shared documents—at home. Fitbits, smartwatches, and other devices that collect and project information about you can be tracked, either in real time (if the device has Bluetooth or WiFi capabilities) or after the fact (if it connects to your computer or phone).

PRO TIP: Whether you bring a phone or not, be sure to jot down the phone number of a lawyer and emergency contact on your arm or on a piece of paper in your pocket in the event that you get arrested and don’t have access to your devices.

2. I want to bring my smartphone. How do I protect myself and my privacy?

  • Back up your data. You can back it up to the Cloud (more convenient) or to a local computer (more secure).
  • Encrypt your data. This scrambles your data so it’s harder to read. iPhones are encrypted by default, but Android users can turn on “Encrypt Disk” in the security section of their settings.
  • Minimize visibility on push notifications and badges. If your phone gets confiscated, you don’t want these popping up automatically—while your phone is locked—for all to see.
  • Strengthen your passcode. You want to use at least 10 characters. Remember: The longer your passcode, the harder it will be for police or anyone else to hack into your phone.
  • Turn off Face and Touch ID. Police may try to pressure you to unlock your phone with your face or finger. Remember: You DO NOT have to comply, and they need a warrant to get your passcode.

PRO TIP for iPhone users: Say you’ve installed a long passcode and turned off Face/Touch ID, but you are finding it impractical to keep entering your code every time you need to unlock your phone. Instead, leave Face/Touch ID on, but—the moment you’re concerned about your phone getting confiscated—quickly disable Face/Touch ID by holding down the power and volume button, then press cancel to avoid calling SOS.

3. How can I use my phone more safely?

  • Turn off WiFi, Bluetooth, and location services. When using your phone at a protest, keep your phone OFF as much as possible to limit surveillance. If your phone is ON, manually turn off WiFi, Bluetooth, AND location services—all three can project your location!
  • Use an encrypted messaging app (like Signal or WhatsApp) or text between iPhones (but NOT between iPhone and Android). Encryption garbles your communications so that a third party (such as law enforcement) cannot easily read them.
  • Watch out for identifying info in your photos. If you’re taking photos and posting them on social media, they can be surveilled in real time. So, try to avoid any identifiers in photos (street name, address, etc.) that could be used to locate you in real time or locate your home.
  • For photos destined for social media, consider blurring faces, tattoos, etc. Social media is monitored in real time during protests, so be thoughtful about including information that could be used to identify someone (faces, tattoos, piercings, etc.) and put them at risk.

PRO TIP: Any photos you take with your phone or with most professional cameras automatically record metadata—time, date, location—which could be used to track you. To remove metadata from a photo, take a screenshot of the photo and use that instead, OR download the Signal app and text yourself the photo, then save the photo back to your phone. Signal will automatically scrape all metadata from photos texted through the app.

NOTE: None of this is foolproof or airtight. Our phones and our apps are built to track and surveil us, and the government has all sorts of sophisticated surveillance technology. This guidance is not to be construed as legal advice, but rather to make you aware of risks and vulnerabilities so you can make an informed decision about what works best for you.

If you need immediate assistance, here’s a list of resources (funds, tips, guides, etc.) to protect your physical safety, digital safety, legal rights, and mental health.

The guidance above was adapted from a workshop on digital safety, surveillance, and privacy for reporters, conducted by digital safety experts from PEN America and Freedom of the Press Foundation in June 2020.

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