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A Quick Guide to Protecting Your Identity and Privacy when Protesting

Last edited: October 22, 2020
Reading time: 8 minutes, 11 seconds

Currently, there are massive protests going on against police brutality and institutional racism around the world. From protests in the US to the End Sars protests in Nigeria, there seems to be a lot of discontent amongst citizens. The right to protest is a basic constitutional right in most Western countries, but governments often try to find ways to track protesters through mass surveillance. For example, in 2017, the American Justice Department tried to get hold of the IP-addresses of 1.3 million people that organized protests against the inauguration of the president.

These protesters all used the same website for coordinating their protests, so they were an easy target. However, the police could also track you using face recognition software. In places that have a more dictatorial regime, tactics might be even less subtle, such as confiscating phones and other possessions of protesters.  In this article, we will give pointers on the most important privacy measures you can take, while still exercising your right to protest.

We placed this article in the unblock section because the right to protest and criticize your government pertains to freedom. However, this freedom is not enjoyed everywhere and is under serious threat in some places. So with this article we want to help people stay safe and protect their privacy when they go out and protest injustice.

Anonymizing Your Smartphone

To prevent your personal data from being accessible after confiscation by governments and other institutions, the best thing would be to not bring a phone at all. This is almost impossible in practice, as communication devices are essential in case of an emergency. Moreover, in recent weeks we have seen the importance of documenting these protests. The cameras on mobile phones have enabled people all over the world to see why people are pushing for change. So, what are your options if you want to protect your privacy during these protests?

A second phone

smartphone-with-telephone-iconThe next best thing to leaving your phone at home, is using a separate phone when you go out and protest. You should then opt to only install essential applications on this device, such as Whatsapp and a camera app. This way there will be less data on your phone that can be linked to you. This could save you a lot of future trouble if your phone gets confiscated during a protest. Be especially careful with social media such as Facebook or Instagram. Technically your second phone doesn’t even have to be a smartphone.

We understand that not everyone has the opportunity to get a second phone. If you want to make your current phone safer you can temporarily delete non-essential apps, and/or make sure you are logged out of all you apps and accounts on your device. Moreover, it is wise to turn off your location and Bluetooth to make your phone harder to track. It is also possible to stop location tracking by using a Faraday bag. A Faraday bag is made of materials which block electromagnetic radiation. That means that no signal can reach (or leave) your phone. In that way, your location will only be visible when you take your phone out of the bag.

Private messaging apps

Communication can be essential during and before a protest. You will want to keep in contact with your friends to make sure everyone is doing well, and communicate with other protesters to organize an effective protest. However, not all messaging apps protect your communication from prying eyes. For something as important and at the same time potentially risky as a protest, you’ll want to use a message service with end-to-end-encryption. The best messaging apps for privacy include Surespot and Signal. For extensive information on private messaging apps, read our article on the best WhatsApp alternatives for privacy.

Another way to ensure protected communication, is by making use of PGP, which stands for Pretty Good Privacy. This is basically an airtight means of secure communication (when used correctly) and relies on using so called keys that the receiver of a message needs to decrypt and thus view the message you send them. It is extremely secure and the great thing is it works with most major email providers. So it can be used for people who might not have access to the same applications for whatever reason. A great source that explains PGP usage in a easy, no-nonsense way, is this one.

There are also email clients which have PGP already integrated. This is very convenient for people who don’t have a lot of technical know-how. One of the most popular ones is ProntonMail.

VPN ShieldPlease note that not all of the privacy-solutions mentioned in this article or elsewhere are available in every part of the world. Countries such as China and Turkey for instance utilize a lot of censorship to block certain content, apps and websites. That’s why it’s often useful to use a VPN in these countries, as this let’s you circumvent these restrictions.

Encrypting your data and using strong passwords

In case your smartphone is confiscated by police, you should make sure that your storage is encrypted. For Android phones, this is possible through Settings -> Security -> Encrypt Disk. iPhones have automatic disk encryption, if you use a lock screen with a password.

Speaking of lock screens: do not use biometric methods to unlock your phone (like fingerprints and face scans). A (good) password is much harder to circumvent than fingerprint or face recognition. Make sure that you use a strong password, that isn’t easy to guess. Some apps, like secure messaging services, will also allow you to protect them with a password. Make it as hard as possible for someone to go snooping around in your phone.

It might be that you aren’t able to get a second phone like we recommended above. In this case you might have a plethora of apps which store a lot of your personal data on your phone. Just think about social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Make sure to protect all of these with a strong password as well, just in case. You never know how far a government would and could go to identify (potential) protesters. A good way to protect all of your accounts and apps is by using a secure password manager.

Using a VPN to prevent IP tracking

Apart from GPS location tracking, your IP address can be tracked when you connect to local networks. You can prevent this by not using local networks at all, but if you forget to disable Wi-Fi, you will be cornered in no-time. To dodge this risk, you can re-route your connection through a VPN server. In that way, you can hide your IP address. For example, if you are located in the U.S., you can  make it look like you are in Canada. Moreover, with a VPN your browsing data will be encrypted. This means that nobody will be able to see what you do online.

Social Media as a Weapon

Facebook logoYour social media page(s) might be an even easier way to identify you, especially if you coordinate protests through Facebook, for example. Moreover, if you are logged into one of your social media accounts on your phone this makes it easier for someone to find out that the device belongs to you. For this reason it can be smart to temporarily delete these apps or log out of your social media accounts.

Many people will want to share images and clips of protests on their social media to reach as many people as possible. However, to protect the privacy of others it’s best to blurr out the faces of people protesting. Moreover, think about the things you post and how they might be used against you and others. The consequences could be dire, as you might be recognized. Moreover, the authorities could recognize other protesters, which means that you endanger not only yourself, but others, too.

If you want to be thorough, you could delete your social media accounts. It is a fact that platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp save a huge amount of information about you. If you don’t want to take any risks, we recommend to use a safe messaging service and to delete your Facebook-account before you take part in protests.

Protecting Yourself Against Surveillance Techniques

There are methods other than your phone or social media with which authorities can track you. Surveillance footage and surveillance software are already used by police departments, so it is wise to be as unrecognizable as possible. Wear clothing that is as muted in color as possible, to blend in with your surroundings. In addition, hide identifiable parts of your appearance like piercings, tattoos or jewelry.

Regarding your face, it is a good idea to wear a face mask for two reasons. You will be less recognizable, and wearing a face mask will help to protect you and others against the coronavirus. In the same vein, sunglasses will hide your eyes from being recognized, as some forms of facial recognition are already adapting to facemasks.

Not only police departments can use your appearance to uncover your identity. Opponents of the cause that you’re protesting might resort to doxxing or online harassment, to silence your voice. We recommend removing as much of your information that is available online, but this can be quite hard. For more tips on this, read our article on how to remove your information from Google’s search results.

Staying Vigilant

To conclude, we can say that the measures above will go a long way to decrease your risk of being recognized or tracked. They are not a be-all, end-all solution, though. You can only protect your real-life identity by real-life measures, and you need to stay alert, online as well as offline. Surveillance technology is only getting smarter.

Tech journalist
Erik was educated in the humanities, after which he started to investigate technological and online culture. Specifically, he is interested in privacy and net neutrality. Erik has worked as an editor, copywriter and translator for several platforms, with technology as a recurring theme.

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