(Guide published June 5, 2020 – be sure to check for updates and/or new information. Resource for the Adafruit teams and publicly posted, by Violet Blue)
Digital privacy and security measures for staying safe while protesting may feel like a confusing, moving target. That’s because your adversaries in this scenario are a combination of greedy companies, broken and corrupt authorities, and people who simply don’t know how to do their own privacy and security.
Don’t fret: there is an easy path through this. It’s a path with lots of solid answers (and resources) to get your questions answered, help you when things go awry, and to limit your risk. All you need to do is know your risks, make the best choices you can for each situation, and stay nimble. The guides and resources below provide you with essentials for safe and effective protesting; to go even further with online protest guides, hardware hacking projects, and guidelines for staying sane during insane times, read more in How To Be A Digital Revolutionary.
Carefully consider how much gear you’re bringing, and how you plan to keep track of it. Minimal gear is always best. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes you can move easily in, and make sure your mask is secured and won’t come off easily. Bring the minimum amount of stuff to keep your bag or pockets light. Bring extra batteries, an extra mask, storage cards, and your own charger. Pack water, your ID, any prescriptions you need, and consider pandemic extras like nitrile gloves and antibacterial wipes/gel.
Protest prep (detailed below):
- Comfortable clothes, layers
- Pack light
- Prep your phone
- Print docs you might need like maps, etc
- Make a plan in case you lose each other
- Put a password or PIN on every piece of digital gear you possibly can, attach wrist straps to everything, and sign out of apps you’re not using
Buddy systems and planning ahead
Formulate a digital strategy with your friends before going. Agree on which encrypted app everyone will be using to communicate, and which sharing sites you’re focusing on. Check in about taking photos or video of each other. Agree to look out for each other while taking photos or video, sort of like having a “spotter.”
Cell phone service will be degraded, at the very least because there will be so many people using it. Create a file (in notes, a photo, a text document, or a PDF) that doesn’t require you to use the Internet to access it. On this file, put everyone’s contact numbers, a phone number for your lawyer or a legal advocacy group, your emergency contact, and a map of the area or building you’ll all be in. This way you can get to it when you can’t get cell service or WiFi is down.
Before you go, review maps of the area. Make a plan with your friends about where to meet, and where to meet if you get separated. Set a time limit and make your meeting point specific. For instance, if you get separated for more than fifteen minutes, meet at the McDonald’s on Market Street.
Don’t just select a corner, park, street or city block: If you say “the corner of Market and Castro,” how will you know which corner in a giant crowd? Landmarks are also easier to find in mass marches when street signs may not be visible. Be sure to plan how you’ll end the event; set a time and an area you plan to be in at the finish so you can regroup and decide what to do next.
Before you head out check to see if any of the people organizing the march or event you are attending has a track record, so you know what to expect. See if their history has any violent or problematic protests. Find out if what you’re planning on doing will be in a public, safe space—or not.
In the United States, your First Amendment right to freedom of assembly doesn’t mean you can gather anywhere you want. It’s meant to limit authorities from infringing on peaceful assembly in public spaces. The problem is, it’s often difficult to tell (especially in a city) where the private spaces are in public places; you might wander onto private property that isn’t clearly marked without even knowing it. Many seemingly public spaces are owned by corporations; Levi Plaza in San Francisco is just one example. Find out if the place you’re going is really a public place—or if it’s technically private property.
Such areas are called Privately-Owned Public Space (POPS). You can find them by Googling POPS and the name of your city (also check the POPS entry in this book’s “Resources” chapter) and they’re often in downtown city office districts. POPS are usually things like small parks, plazas, terraces, or atriums. If you move your protest or assembly into a POPS, and that’s when the police can crack down on your protest.
Finally — know your rights. Be sure to read the ACLU’s Protesters’ Rights resource, a page that guides you by scenario.
Docs to keep with you
It’s a good idea to make sure you have your emergency contacts handy. This means your personal emergency contact, but also contact information for a legal hotline, or your lawyer if you have one.
You may want to keep a copy of these somewhere that’s not your phone in case something happens to it. Sometimes the best way is the old fashioned way; while some might tell you to put this info on a USB stick, a print copy somewhere on your person is the most practical solution. A post-it stuck to your ID, or even written on your arm in ink (if you think things will be intense) works just fine.
Unless you’re aiming for trouble, you should always keep your ID on you. This, and any information about medical conditions and allergies. If you’re meeting with people in an unfamiliar building or area, consider keeping a copy of a map or building plan on you as well. Your mapping app might not always be available or fast enough, so either download a copy to your phone or print it to stash in your bag.
Print the Talking to police (know your rights) cards to keep on you, and to give out to others.
Along with these, you may want to consider keeping a few other documents on you that can come in handy if you’re confronted by misbehaving authority figures.
Your phone is your most important piece of gear. You’ll need your phone locked down for security and ready to connect to the world.
Prepare as if you will lose your phone or have it confiscated.
- Back up your address book and all files
- Sign out of (or remove) every non-essential app
- Make sure your password is on — do not use fingerprint or face ID; these have less legal protections and authorities have been forcing phones open with these methods for years
- Turn off location, Bluetooth
- Turn on encryption
- Install and use a secure (end-to-end encrypted) messaging service like Signal or Threema
- Install and use a VPN like Tunnelbear
- Update your device and apps
- Don’t let your phone join open WiFi networks
- Go into settings and turn off locked screen notifications
Put your phone in Airplane Mode to reduce surveillance risks as well as prevent your battery from draining. Media use drains your battery, but so does using WiFi when there are a lot of people around (among other things). Consider getting a small extra battery pack to stash in your bag so you don’t run out of juice at the moment you need it the most. There are lots of inexpensive, slim, and light “juice packs” (small battery chargers) you can get that won’t add a lot to your load.
Your phone is a tracking device in a variety of ways. One solution is to keep your phone in an Anti-Surveillance Phone Pouch when not in use.
If you’re going to be out and about, you may want to do a little DIY work on your phone and attach a wrist strap to it. This way, if your phone gets knocked out of your hands, you won’t lose it. Buy an inexpensive case on Amazon, and salvage or buy a small camera wrist strap—the kind that is just a cord. Then you can do one of two things. Before you snap the case on, attach the wrist strap through one of the case’s available holes.
Make sure no one can figure out your location when you take pictures with your phone. Most photo apps give you the option to remove the data that’s in a photo file that can give snoops your exact coordinates when you took that photo.
On an Android phone, go to Settings and Apps, then tap each app you take photos with to see if it’s collecting your location. Toggle Location to “off” if it isn’t already. To prevent your iPhone or iPad from saving location data in photos, you can follow these simple steps:
- Open Settings
- Privacy > Location Services
- You’ll see a list of apps. Tap on Camera and then select Never
- Don’t let your phone out of your sight or let anyone else use it
- Don’t open texts or emails from anyone you don’t know on your phone
- Be aware of anyone looking over your shoulder when you unlock your phone. Look out for cameras or phones that might be pointed at your screen
Do inventory of the apps you use for photos, video, status updates, and communicating with your community. Make sure they’re updated and easy to access. Some phones will let you assign a key or make a shortcut for taking photos or video; set that up so you’re always ready. Again, log out of or delete all your non-essential apps — this is to prevent the apps from spying on you, and keeps your accounts safe if your phone ends up in someone else’s hands.
- If you plan to share on the go, review the settings of your social media apps to make sure they’re not compromising your security, such as sharing your location.
- Pick a secure, reputable, end-to-end encrypted messaging app.
- Strongly consider using a reputable face-blurring tool for video and photos you take of yourself and other people. Several have been released in the past week and few have been vetted by security teams; it’s important to understand that face blurring, if done incorrectly, can be easily un-done. Reports on whether or not masks defy facial recognition are conflicted.
Only use apps from reputable sources and make sure you’re downloading the verified, legit app. A lot of well-meaning articles are circulating about protest apps, but few are written by people who understand how digital surveillance actually works: security protocols, where the data is stored and sent, third-party sharing, how the app responds to demands from law enforcement, etc.
You have options when it comes to encrypted chat apps. Signal is considered the best choice by far, with iPhone, Android, and desktop versions. With Signal you can also make encrypted phone calls. iMessage is for Apple iOS only, so it’s a great choice if you’re only communicating with other iPhones — messages sent to an Android phone are not encrypted.
Every app owned by Facebook should be considered suspect and high risk (FB, Insta, WhatsApp). If you must use Messenger, be sure to turn on “Secret Conversations” to activate encryption.
Signal and Threema get it right when it comes to defying surveillance, and neither are owned by corporations. Threema in particular allows the most fine-grained anonymity tools offered by any communication app around.
This week Signal announced it’s currently rolling out a new face-blurring tool into the latest Android and iOS versions of its app. Signal’s announcement post also suggests that the company is working on masks (gaiters) that may scramble facial recognition AI, so stay tuned.
Have a backup plan for when the app you use to share media stops working. In a recent protest, police ordered newsfeeds cut and Facebook simultaneously turned off Facebook Live streams coming from people at the protest with a high number of viewers.
A burner app will allow you to send SMS text messages from a throwaway number, and some offer disappearing messages and end-to-end encryption. Recommended burners include Burner app, Hushed, and CoverMe.
When things get weird
If you’re in a protest and things start getting scary, here are a few tips:
- Always move with the crowd (same direction, don’t try to go against)
- Don’t panic
- Pay attention to authorities
- Have a spotter if you document
- Exit the flow on a diagonal
In a situation where people start to rush, panic, or run, always go with the flow, figure out where your exits might be, and get away from the crowd. The danger here is real, and not just from violent police or rabid protesters. Falling down can get you trampled, leaving you injured or worse. You could be crushed or have a lot of people fall on top of you, and there’s a risk of suffocation because you may not be able to fill your lungs.
People who regularly swim in the ocean, like me, will know how to get out of a riptide—when the ocean pulls you out and away from the coast. When this happens, you swim parallel to the coastline, and it’s hard work. You’re exhausted afterward, and much further from where you started.
Being in a bad crowd situation is similar. To get out of a scary crowd that’s pulling you into its fray, you won’t make a sharp right or left turn (cutting across the crowd). Make a gradual right or left across the flow of people, more like a 45-degree diagonal angle. Stay at the speed of the crowd and gradually push through, without panicking or shoving. After you get to “shore,” go around a corner. If you can’t get fully out yet, get behind a barrier that requires people to go around you. Wait here where you’re protected until you see another break in the flow of people, or another opportunity to move.
If you know you’re going to a potentially rowdy protest, set up multiple meet-up points, with some being specifically outside of the protest area, and preferably not where the protest may move to. Also maintain situational awareness at all times, and communicate with others to assess out the mood.
One problem for people who wanted to get away from the U.C. Berkeley protests after the 2016 election was the issue of “police kettling.”
“Kettling” is when police corral protestors and anyone inside the zone they want to control. You want to avoid ending up in this zone, but sometimes it’s difficult because authorities try to do it without anyone figuring it out. Sometimes they will give warning over a bullhorn and ask to disperse within a certain amount of time. That’s when you decide whether the situation is worth potential detention or arrest, or if you’re better off leaving to regroup elsewhere.
While in the crowd, you may want to split up with your group intentionally. Always split off with a buddy; never go alone. This way both of you have “eyes and ears” for risk, danger, and maintaining safety when taking photos or video. Have everyone agree to meeting points where you’ll check in during the event.
Unless you are wearing a full mask and respirator that doesn’t move from your face in any way, if you get hit with chemicals, you’re going down. Yes, you can use milk to wash it out and reduce the effects, but that requires people to help you and guide you out.
The best way to prepare for protests that turn violent is to read the online series “OPSEC for Activists” by security researcher and medic Elle Armageddon:
- OPSEC for Activists, Part 1: The Basics
- OPSEC for Activists, Part 2: Packing for a Protest
- OPSEC for Activists Part 3: Always Carry A Bandana
- Anti-Surveillance Phone Pouch
- DIY Mini Portable Timelapse Camera
- MintyBoost Kit
- Digital Free Library
(For Adafruit team)
If you find yourself where you need help, including bail, Ladyada, pt, Stella, and team are available for all team members to assist.