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Secure yourself in under 5 minutes: A quick and easy guide for staying safe at protests and rallies

TL;DR Going to a protest? Do this: 1 - put a password on your phone, 2 - protect your accounts with strong passwords, 3 - encrypt your texts and call

How do you keep yourself, your personal information, and your electronic devices safe and secure at protest? Concerns about being spied on for legal, nonviolent protest are at an all time high. The good news is, you can take some seriously easy and effective steps in under five minutes.

I campaign on surveillance and freedom of expression issues here at OpenMedia. But in my free time, I go to a lot of street protests, volunteer as a legal observer to protect activists from police misconduct, and “enjoy” being frequently arrested for my direct action environmental work.

I’ve been recorded by police and had my electronics seized and held for months, and yet STILL I manage to be bored by 5,000 word essays on the technical aspects of encryption options. Unforgivable, I know, but let’s be honest – there are plenty of people who don’t want to delve deep into the world of information security but equally, don’t want the police going through their web browsing history. If that sounds familiar, then this easy six step guide is for YOU!

1. Consider leaving your phone and laptop at home

If you’re taken into custody, the police can take any electronics you have on you and keep them in evidence for many months – even if you’ve done nothing wrong. They may also try to take your personal information off those devices.

If you need to have a phone with you, consider using a cheap “burner” phone instead, or a spare phone that you’ve wiped and logged out of all your social media accounts.

2. Passcode protect your phone (and other devices)

This is a truly basic step that you can do right now, in under 60 seconds. And yet about a third of people don’t even take this simple measure. Don’t be that person!

Without a passcode, anyone can gain access to your phone – which usually means they also now have access to your email, social media accounts and browsing history.

In a situation where police might gain access to your phone, using a passcode is better than using a pattern, which in turn is better than using a fingerprint. Why? Because in some cases, police can legally force people to unlock their phones with their fingerprints, whereas they cannot force you to hand over your passcode. And don’t forget: six digit passcodes are way, way better than four digit ones.

Here’s how to do it on Apple or Android.

3. Choose strong passwords

Be it your phone, email or social media password, you need to avoid common mistakes that can make it easy for people to get access to your personal information.  

Never reuse passwords – choose a different password for each of your important accounts. If someone gains access to your email, they can use it to reset your passwords for many other accounts, so pay special attention to this one.

Don’t choose awful passwords. Is your password 6969? Hilarious! Now change it. Check here to see if your password is one of the most commonly used in the world. And click here to make a new, better password.

4. Use encrypted messaging

A passcode can help protect your phone if someone gets a hold of it. But without accessing the messages on your phone, can people still read your texts, or listen in on your calls? You probably already suspect the depressing answer – of course they can.

What’s the answer? Encrypted messaging and calling. We recommend Signal (get it here for Apple or Android) – it’s just as easy to use as any conventional messaging app, but all your information is scrambled when it passes from you to your friends, so no one can eavesdrop.

How does this kind of spying happen? One real-life example are Stingray devices, used by police to reveal your phone’s location, listen to your calls and read your text messages. They fool your phone into connecting to a fake cellular network - and they do that to everyone in a given area, whether or not they’re suspected of anything (If you’d like to see common sense limits put on these information gobbling sea-creatures you can speak out against this here.)

5. Know your rights

Police officers may ask you to do things that you are not required to do, like give them your electronic devices, hand over passwords, delete images from your camera or phone, or give personal information about yourself. They may tell you to do these things in a very authoritative manner. Knowing your legal rights will give you the confidence to refuse these requests.

Your legal rights may vary from country to country, so check with a local group such as: 

6. Share this guide

Your private communications are also at risk if the people you’re communicating with don’t follow these basic privacy steps. If their emails or texts are intercepted, your side of the conversation will be in the hands of the interceptor.

Friends don’t let friends be the weakest link – share this guide with anyone you know who could find it useful.

A few bonus points

Peaceful law-abiding protesters need to worry about this too.

Warrantless spying, like Stingrays, target people by area indiscriminately, whether or not law enforcement has reason to suspect them of wrongdoing. You’re even more at risk if you live in a poor, black neighbourhood.

Governments have been found time and time again to be spying on peaceful groups and activists, just take for example the outrageous case of government spying on British Columbia’s advocate for aboriginal children and youth, Cindy Blackstock.

You may also be targeted by counter-demonstrators or others who do not agree with your viewpoint. There are even fewer controls to stop these groups spying on you than with the police.

Finally, whether or not you feel encryption or other security measures are necessary for you, it’s a great idea to help normalise the use of security tools so that we, and the people around us, get used to seeing and using this important technology.

Not all protest happens on the street – protect yourself online

Street level protest is just one facet of modern day activism. Some of the most important activism happening right now is happening online.

But here, your identity, personal information, and real life safety can be at risk from individuals who don’t like the things you say online. And let’s be real – this is especially true if you identify as a woman or are part of any vulnerable community.

All the tips above apply, but you should also read this great guide on online safety from people who have been there.