Thousands of protesters are filling the streets of American cities to protest the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, and police brutality writ large. Police officers have shown they’re more than willing to escalate violence with pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets, vehicles, and other dangerous crowd suppression measures. In addition, law enforcement are likely heavily surveilling protests with all sorts of tech and spying gear. Already, we’ve seen a Customs and Border patrol drone flying over Minneapolis protests.
It’s not just the cops that protesters need to worry about: when much of a protest is broadcast via tweets, viral video clips, and livestreams, those watching may also want to digitally target protesters, perhaps by identifying them publicly.
So, if you’re a peaceful protester, but you don’t necessarily want your participation in a demonstration to follow you around or lead to harassment online, what sort of steps can you take around your digital security?
Bring a clean phone…
“They’ll be, obviously, cell-site simulators,” Matthew Mitchell, a founder of Crypto Harlem told Motherboard in a Signal call. These devices, otherwise known as IMSI-catchers, Stingrays, or more recently Crossbows, can record phones’ geolocation, their phone number, and sometimes the content of texts and phone calls.
“If everyone is texting a couple of organizers, or calling a bunch of friends, that one friend that connected to all people could be identified,” Mitchell said.
“What it’ll say is this person was definitely at this place, at this time, and maybe you don’t want that. Maybe you want to be able to show your support, show your political view, and having the ramifications for that, the cost of your free speech, to be low,” he added.
SMS text messages are the easiest for police to intercept, and during a protest you should not assume that these will be private; if possible you should use an encrypted alternative (more info below).
If you’d rather make it harder for any data that is swept up by these devices to be linked to you personally, you might consider buying a new, dedicated device for the protest. Maybe a $100 Android phone, Mitchell suggested.
“Your privacy is worth more than that,” Mitchell said. You could buy this with cash or a gift card too so it’s not linked to your credit card records. Don’t turn it on when at home with your normal phone, and switch it off when you leave the protest.
You may also want to quickly setup a new Gmail account, on public wifi, and then use that to download encrypted communication apps.
…Or bring no phone at all
Of course, those are several hoops to jump through, it’s easy to screw it up somehow, and you might not have $100 to spend on a temporary protest phone. So the simpler, and probably more effective approach for protecting privacy, is to not bring a cell phone at all and rely on more traditional methods of activist coordination.
Agree to meet friends at a certain place, at a certain time. Maybe decide on multiple locations in case the protest is broken up or cordoned off by law enforcement.
Ultimately, there is a trade-off to be had between convenience and privacy while at a protest, and how much you’re willing to sway on either side of that is up to you. That also depends on what particular information you want to protect and from whom; something that can be summed up as your own ‘threat model’ (for more on this, take a look at Motherboard’s Guide to Not Getting Hacked).
If you do bring your personal phone, encrypt it
In the end, you may want to just use your own device when going out and protesting. Just keep in mind that it will be relatively easy for law enforcement to identify you and your movements if they do want to access your phone records in some form……Read More>>