With the proliferation of personal technologies, protesters of all political persuasions are increasingly documenting their protests—and encounters with the police—using electronic devices like cameras and mobile phones. In some cases, getting that one shot of the riot police coming right at you posted somewhere on the Internet is an exceptionally powerful act and can draw vital attention to your cause. The following are useful tips for you to remember if you find yourself at a protest and are concerned about protecting your electronic devices if or when you’re questioned, detained, or arrested by police. Remember that these tips are general guidelines, so if you have specific concerns, please talk to an attorney.
Preparing Your Personal Devices for a Protest
Think carefully about what’s on your phone before bringing it to a protest. Your phone contains a wealth of private data, which can include your list of contacts, the people you have recently called, your text messages and email, photos and video, GPS location data, your web browsing history and passwords, and the contents of your social media accounts. Through stored passwords or active logins, access to the device can allow someone to obtain yet even more information on remote servers. (You can log out of these services).
In many countries, people are required to register their SIM cards when they purchase a mobile phone. If you take your mobile phone with you to a protest, it makes it easy for the government to figure out that you are there. If you need to keep your participation in a protest secret from governments or law enforcement, cover your face so that it is harder to identify you from photos. However, do note that masks may get you into trouble in some locations due to anti-mask laws. Also, do not take your mobile phone with you. If you absolutely must bring a mobile phone with you, try to bring one that is not registered in your name.
To protect your rights, you may want to harden your existing phone against searches. You should also consider bringing a throwaway or alternate phone to the protest that does not contain sensitive data, which you’ve never used to log in to your communications or social media accounts, and which you would not mind losing or parting with for a while. If you have a lot of sensitive or personal information on your phone, the latter might be a better option.
Password-protection and encryption options: Always password-protect your phone. But while password-protecting your phone is a small barrier to access, please be aware that merely password-protecting or locking your phone is not an effective barrier to expert forensic analysis. Android and iPhone both provide options for full-disk encryption on their operating systems, and you should use them, though the safest option remains leaving the phone elsewhere.
One problem with mobile phone encryption is that on Android the same password is used for disk encryption and screen unlocking. This was a bad design, because it forces the user to either select a too-weak password for the encryption, or to type a too-long and inconvenient password for the screen. The best compromise may be 8-12 fairly random characters that are nonetheless easy to type quickly on your particular device. Or if you have root access to your Android phone and know how to use a shell, read here for instructions on how to set up a separate (longer) password for full-disk encryption. (See also "Communicating with Others” for details on how to encrypt text and voice calls.)
Back up your data: It’s important that you frequently back up the data stored on your phone, especially if your device lands into the hands of a police officer. You may not get your phone back for a while (if at all) and it is possible that its contents may be deleted, whether intentionally or not.
For similar reasons, consider writing one important, but non-incriminating phone number on your body with a permanent marker in case you lose your phone, but are permitted to make a call.
Cell site location information: If you take your mobile phone with you to a protest, it makes it easy for the government to figure out that you are there by seeking the information from your provider. (We believe that governments should obtain an individualized warrant to obtain location information, but governments often disagree). If you need to keep the fact of your participation in a protest from the government, do not take your mobile phone with you. If you absolutely must bring a mobile phone with you, try to bring one that is not registered in your name.
If you are concerned about being arrested at the protest, it’s best practice to pre-arrange a message to a trusted friend who is in a safe place. Write your text message to that person in advance and queue it up so that you can send it quickly in case of an emergency to let them know you have been arrested. Similarly, you may want to plan a pre-arranged call after the protest with a friend—if they don’t hear from you, they can assume you’ve been arrested.
In addition to being made aware that your phone has been seized and you have been arrested, that trusted friend might be able to change the passwords to your email and social media accounts in case you are coerced into giving up your passwords to the authorities.
Please note that deliberately concealing or destroying evidence may be considered an illegal act in itself in some jurisdictions (including many social democracies).
Be sure you and your friend understand the law and the risks before engaging in this plan. For instance, if you are protesting in a country with a strong tradition of the rule of law and where protesting in itself is not a crime, it may be that conspiring to lock out law enforcement from your accounts may lead to you breaking the law when previously you would be able to leave without charge. On the other hand, if you are concerned for the physical safety of you and your colleagues at the hands of a unchecked militia, protecting your friends’ identities and your own data from them may be a greater priority than complying with an investigation.
You’re at the Protest—Now What?
Once you are at the protest, keep in mind that law enforcement may be monitoring communications in the area. You may wish to encrypt your chats using ChatSecure, or your text and phone conversations using Signal.
Please remember that even if your communications are encrypted, your metadata is not; your mobile phone will still give away your location and the metadata about your communications, such as whom you are talking to and for how long.
If you want to keep your identity and location secret, make sure to strip all metadata off of your photos before you post them.
In other circumstances, metadata can be useful for demonstrating the credibility of evidence collected at a protest. The Guardian Project makes a tool called InformaCam that allows you to store metadata along with including information about the user’s current GPS coordinates, altitude, compass bearing, light meter readings, the signatures of neighboring devices, cell towers, and WiFi networks; and serves to shed light on the exact circumstances and contexts under which the digital image was taken.