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Attending a Protest

Last Reviewed: February 01, 2023

For quick reference, we've created a handy guide designed to be printed, folded, and carried in your pocket (PDF download).

Now, more than ever, citizens must be able to hold those in power accountable and inspire others through the act of protest.

Protecting your electronic devices and digital assets before, during, and after a protest is vital to keeping yourself and your information safe, as well as getting your message out. Theft, damage, confiscation, or forced deletion of media can disrupt your ability to publish your experiences. At the same time, those engaging in protest may be subject to search or arrest, or have their movements and associations surveilled.

Remember that these tips are general suggestions for better data security and do not constitute legal advice or counseling. If you have specific legal concerns, seek the advice of a licensed attorney.

Before the Protest anchor link

Enable full-disk encryption on your device anchor link

Full-disk encryption ensures that the files across your entire device are encrypted. This is a form of encryption that protects data at rest—not to be confused with “in-transit encryption,” which protects data that is transferred over the Internet. Full-disk encryption can help protect everything from your local database of text messages to the passwords stored in your browser. If your device is confiscated by police, or if it is lost or stolen, full-disk encryption can help protect the data stored on your device. Protest situations are often unpredictable, so losing your phone is a distinct possibility.

Android and iOS have long required full-disk encryption capabilities to be built into devices. These should be protected by a strong password : 8-12 random characters that are easy to remember and type in when you unlock your device. If devices are not protected by a strong password, the encryption may be easier to break using a brute-force attack. The iPhone 5s and later have specialized hardware to protect against this type of attack , but bypasses for this protection continue to be developed and so a complex, strong password is still the best practice.

Encrypting your device will likely not encrypt external storage media such as SD or flash memory cards. You have to encrypt these separately, and may not be able to encrypt them at all. You might want to investigate where files are stored on your device using a file browsing app, or remove external storage media from your device altogether.

In addition, many digital cameras lack the ability to encrypt. It is safe to assume that photos and videos taken with digital cameras will be stored unencrypted, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

Remove fingerprint unlock and FaceID anchor link

Today, both iOS and Android allow users to unlock (and decrypt ) their devices with their fingerprint , and the iPhone X and later models' FaceID allows users to do the same with facial recognition. While these settings may seem appealing as convenient ways to enjoy the benefits of full-disk encryption, enabling them means an officer could physically force you to unlock your device with your fingerprint or face. In protest situations in particular—or in any other situation in which you may be more likely to encounter a government demand to search your phone (such as at a border crossing)—we suggest you turn this functionality off.

In the U.S., using a biometric—like your face scan or fingerprint—to unlock your phone may also compromise legal protections for the contents of your phone afforded to you under the Fifth Amendment privilege against compelled incrimination. Under current U.S. law—which is still in flux—using a memorized passcode generally provides a stronger legal footing to push back against a court order of compelled device unlocking/decryption. While EFF continues to strengthen our legal protections against compelling people to decrypt their devices, there is currently less protection against compelled face and fingerprint unlocking than there is against compelled password disclosure.

  • In iOS, you can disable this by going into Settings -> Touch ID & Passcode (or Settings -> Face ID & Passcode, depending on your iPhone version) and removing each of the fingerprints, or tapping Reset Face ID in this menu.
  • In Android, disabling this feature may depend on your device manufacturer. For Pixel devices, go into Settings -> Security -> Fingerprint or Settings -> Security -> Pixel Imprint and delete the fingerprints from this menu.

Install Signal anchor link

Signal is an app available on both iOS and Android that offers strong encryption to protect both text messages and voice calls. This type of protection is called end-to-end encryption , which secures your communications in transit.

In addition to encrypting one-to-one communication, Signal enables encrypted group chats. The app also allows the user to set messages to disappear some amount of time after they are first read. In contrast to some other services like SnapChat, these ephemeral messages will never be stored on any server, and are removed from your device after disappearing.

In 2016, a grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia issued a subpoena to Open Whisper Systems, the developers of Signal. Because of the architecture of Signal, which limits the user metadata stored on the company’s servers, the only data they were able to provide was "the date and time a user registered with Signal and the last date of a user's connectivity to the Signal service."

In the context of a protest, you might send relevant photos and videos to friends who are remote using Signal, so that if your phone is confiscated you have a way to retrieve the media later.

People at protests will sometimes have to made tradeoffs. You might have good reasons to send a Signal message, for example, to tell a friend what you are seeing at a protest so they can alert others. You might also have good reasons to block adversaries from using your phone to prove you were at a protest; this requires turning off its connectivity or leaving it at home, as we explain below in the "Toggle your phone's settings" section. Unfortunately, if you go to a protest and use your phone to communicate, even with Signal, then the phone's connectivity might expose your location.

Back up your data anchor link

Take precautions to limit the potential costs of losing access to your device, whether it’s lost, stolen, or confiscated by law enforcement. Back up your data regularly and store that backup in a safe place to save yourself from a headache later on.

Buy a prepaid, disposable phone anchor link

In the United States, federal regulation does not require you to show your ID to purchase a prepaid SIM card (but your state might). Most countries require you to provide a form of ID to purchase a prepaid SIM card, thus linking the card to your identity and removing the possibility of anonymity.

If you're concerned about protecting the data stored on your device, don't bring it to the protest. Instead, purchase a prepaid mobile phone. These devices can be purchased along with a SIM card at most large retail stores. Let your friends know your temporary number, and use this to coordinate activities. Remember that the location of mobile devices can be determined by the cell towers they connect to. So, if you don't want your identity and location known, turn off your prepaid device before going home or anywhere that might reveal your identity. As we explain below regarding any phone in the "Toggle your phone's settings" section, you might also toggle the settings on your prepaid phone to end connectivity and thus block location tracking.

When you're done with the phone, it can be safely recycled or discarded from a location that is not linked to you. Keep in mind that if you carry both your regular device and a prepaid one with you, the location of these devices can be correlated and compromise your anonymity.

Dressing for anonymity and safety anchor link

Many law enforcement agencies have access to sophisticated surveillance technology that can be used to identify people attending a protest. To protect yourself, it’s important to dress in ways that preserve your anonymity and protect your physical safety.

Wearing the same clothing as everyone in your group can help hide your identity during the protest and keep you from being identified and tracked afterwards. Dressing in dark, monochrome colors will help you blend into a crowd. Be aware that you may not be as visible to cars in the dark, and should take extra precaution when crossing streets or walking near moving vehicles.

If you have visible tattoos or bright unconventional hair colors, cover them up. Tattoos can be used to identify you later, and may be added to databases for tattoo recognition. Dark monochrome hats, scarves, gloves, long sleeves, and full-length clothing will help cover these identifying features so you blend more easily into a crowd.

During the Protest anchor link

Take photos and videos without unlocking your device anchor link

Catching that perfect image is something you want to be ready for, and powerful images can help support your cause. If you've chosen a strong password, entering it into the device takes precious time, and you risk the moment passing before you're able to take the picture. Luckily, iOS and Android allow you to take photos and videos without unlocking your device.

  • With Android Pixel devices, double-press the power button.
  • At the iOS lock screen, you can firmly press on the camera icon. Older iOS devices require you to swipe.

Be mindful of other protestors in your photos and videos anchor link

If you are taking photos or videos of people at the protest, be mindful of what you post. If you post photos online where protestors or bystanders’ faces are identifiable, law enforcement or vigilantes might track them down and arrest or harass them. Obscure the faces of anyone in the image. You can edit photos in the default Android or iOS photo editing apps. Be sure to black out or blur other identifying features as well such as tattoos or unique clothing (blurring can sometimes be reversed so blacking out is better if you have the option). There is a useful tool called Image Scrubber that can be used on either mobile or desktop devices.

Scrub metadata on photos anchor link

Once you are ready to post your photos, it’s a good idea to scrub the metadata contained in the image files if you don't want to leak personally identifying information. Metadata on photos can include information such as the model of camera the photo was taken on, the exact time and location where the photo was taken, and even your name.

  • Option 1: Remove any original photo metadata by transferring the photo onto a desktop computer, taking a screenshot of the image, and posting the screenshot instead of the original photo.
  • Option 2: You can also take a screenshot of the photo on your mobile device to remove the metadata, but the image quality may not be as high. You can then post that screenshot instead of the original photo.
  • Option 3: Send yourself a copy of the photo via the Signal app (which strips metadata when sending images), then download the sent image for posting.

Things to be aware of while traveling to and from the protest anchor link

Driving considerations

Automated License Plate Reader Systems (ALPRs) automatically record the license plates of cars driving through an area, along with the exact time, date, and location they were encountered. This technology is often used by law enforcement in the United States and many other countries, or employed by private companies such as Vigilant and MVTrac who then share license plate data with law enforcement and other entities. Amassed in huge databases, this data is retained for lengthy periods of time. Essentially, your location can be tracked over time based on the driving history of any car registered to you, with very few legal limits in place as to how this data can be collected, accessed, shared, and retained.

Read more in our Street Level Surveillance guide on ALPRs.

Public transit considerations

Be careful when traveling to and from the protest location. If you’re using payment methods or transit cards that are linked to you, law enforcement may be able to determine you attended the protest and track your movements. Consider using alternative means of public transportation if you would prefer that your movements and associations remain private.

If you are able, consider biking or walking to and from the protest to minimize exposure to these types of surveillance risks.

Toggle your phone's settings anchor link

To reduce the risk of somebody tracking your location through your phone, go to your phone's settings, turn on Airplane Mode, and turn off Location Services, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. If you using an Android phone, you should also go into your Google account to turn off Location History. This should ensure that your device will not be transmitting for the duration of your time at the protest, and prevents your location from being tracked.

However, even when Airplane Mode is turned on and Location Services, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth are turned off, apps may be able to store your GPS location and transmit it once you connect to the internet again. The only way to ensure this does not happen is to turn the phone off completely.

Turning on Airplane Mode and turning off Wi-Fi also means that you won't be able to message or call your friends, so plan accordingly. Before going to the protest, agree on a spot where you and your friends can meet if you get separated.

If you need to navigate using GPS, use an offline maps app like Organic Maps. You can also download a map of the area of the protest beforehand.

If you are arrested in the United States anchor link

If you are detained and questioned by police, you have a right to remain silent, and to speak with an attorney before and during any questioning. It is best to say “I want my attorney and I choose to remain silent” and then refuse to answer questions until you have a chance to talk to a lawyer.

If you answer questions, be sure to tell the truth. It can be a crime to lie to a police officer and you may find yourself in more trouble for lying to law enforcement than for whatever it was they wanted to talk to you about in the first place.

If the police ask to see your phone, tell them that you do not consent to a search of your device. They might respond by seizing your phone and trying to search it later, but at least it will be clear that you did not give them permission to do so.

If the police ask for the password to unlock your electronic device (or ask you to unlock it directly), you can refuse. You may suffer adverse consequences at the hands of law enforcement—from having your phone seized to being booked into custody—for refusing to provide your password or biometric key . Every arrest situation is different, however, and you will need to consider your own threat model .

After the Protest anchor link

What to do if your device is confiscated anchor link

If your device has been confiscated, you may have legal recourse to get it back. In the U.S., your attorney can file a motion for the return of your property if it is not being held as evidence in a pending case. If the police believe that evidence of a crime was found on your electronic device, including in your photos or videos, then the police can keep it as evidence. They may also attempt to end your ownership of your electronic device, but you can challenge such asset forfeiture in court.

You can also revoke access for some services that are logged in on your device. For instance, on Twitter if you go to Settings and privacy -> Apps and devices, you can revoke access for devices that have permission to connect to your Twitter account. For other services, simply changing your password or passphrase will prompt the app to log out. But beware that revoking law enforcement access may expose you to the risk of being charged with obstruction of justice or the destruction of evidence. You should always speak to your attorney first before deciding how to proceed. Online services may provide logs of recent log-ins for your account. If you are worried your device is being used to access accounts without your consent, it might be useful for you to see if such logs are available and monitor them. If law enforcement confiscates your device, they may use a “forensic” tool such as Cellebrite to try to extract data from your device, such as images, contacts, messages, and location history. This is more likely to be successful if your phone is older or unencrypted. For this reason, 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.