By Christina Ellsberg (@thegreatcrostini)

Protecting protester privacy against police surveillance

Both digital and physical spaces have been occupied by the protests against excessive police violence taking place across the USA. Across partisan lines, US residents have gathered to mourn the killing of George Floyd, for which a police officer has been charged with murder, and to call for justice and racial equality. Whether you are speaking out on the streets or on social media, digital privacy has never been more important for the preservation and advocacy of our basic human rights. Of particular concern is how police can use digital surveillance tactics to undermine our rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly.

In response to these concerns, Open Source Researchers of Color (OSROC) drafted ‘A Guide to On/Offline Protestor Privacy’ to help people protect themselves against invasive surveillance. Our goal is to use our knowledge as open-source investigators while promoting tools produced by the affected communities (in this case, Black Americans), and taking advantage of crowd-sourced Twitter information. The guide describes effective ways of protecting one’s privacy while defending the right to peaceful assembly and protest.

Police surveillance tools include software that can recognise faces, locate phones, and listen in on audio. The New York Times reported that the New York City Police Department (NYPD) may have used these types of software to spy on Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters in 2014, though the NYPD later claimed that they had no records of such surveillance. Similarly, the Minnesota Police Conduct Oversight Commission’s white paper on surveillance (2019) reported that Minnesota law enforcement agencies like the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension used Stingray technology, which can monitor the locations of mobile telephone users. Stingrays are ‘cell-site simulators’ or ‘IMSI catchers’ — as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) explains, they mimic mobile telephone  towers in order to track the location of specific cell phones and countless bystanders.

Offline, at protest sites in Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago, undercover police officers have mixed into the crowds dressed as protesters. These tactics have also been observed to diffuse and infiltrate protests in Hong Kong. Twitter, like other social media platforms, has offered an expanded space for civil society engagement in the protest movement. Users have disseminated important information related to the security and safety of protesters. Threads on Twitter, like this one, share tactics on how to identify undercover police officers. The photograph below, taken in New York on 29 May 2020 and retweeted at least 123,000 times, claims undercover police officers are wearing identification armbands. Other threads on Twitter and stories on Instagram offer strategies for responding to the police’s kettling tactics at protests, like this one in Los Angeles.

As alumni of the Human Rights Investigations Lab at University of California, Berkeley, we have investigated protests across the world, from Hong Kong, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to Venezuela, Chile and others. In those efforts, we have researched the state authorities’ violations of international human rights law, including by documenting the excessive use of force against protesters, including the misuse of tear gas, and tracking command structures. These investigations have given us a collective understanding of the various ways to use advanced searches on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as search engines like Google to monitor, authenticate, and contextualize audiovisual content emerging from protests and conflicts. 

Because open source work largely involves the discovery and verification of audiovisual content, we have learned that it is crucial that protesters be aware that the very same security settings that allow us as investigators to obtain information about perpetrators and identify violations can be used against them by police and others. 

Our understanding of these dangers leads us to offer the following recommendations: 

  1. Discovery is the process by which open source investigators yield relevant user-generated content using a series of keywords and advanced search techniques. We recommend scrambling keywords related to protests in order to limit your content’s visibility outside your network. For example, ‘protest’ can be rewritten as ‘pr0t3st.’ This can increase the privacy of your post and digital footprint, while still using social media as a platform for community organizing and news.
  2. The next crucial step in open source research is verification. Phones and social media profiles heavily track and broadcast a user’s location — often without their informed consent. Our guide outlines how to manage location services from your phone and your online accounts, so you only share where you are, when you want. 
  3. We have a strong sense of the importance of archiving, preserving and documenting one’s videos and photos. Our guide includes instructions on how to archive and preserve your own audiovisual content safely off of your mobile device. Record locations, time, and dates. Remove photos from your phone and transfer them to your hard drive. Avoid the cloud.
  4. Do not post photos, blurred or unblurred, of other people’s faces. This is due to facial recognition technologies and manual surveillance techniques which have resulted in the nonconsensual compromise of protesters’ identities. Doxxing of protestors has also been reported, where social media users track, trace, and publicize personal information with malicious intent. Face blurring can be undone.
  5. If you decide to upload a photo of a protest, do not post the original photo or video. Instead, screenshot or screen record the relevant content so your name, location, and IP address (and other metadata) are no longer associated with the image. 
  6. Our guide outlines how to maximize your privacy on your social media accounts. Make your accounts private, hide your friend lists, untag yourself from your friends and families’ posts, consider removing your name from your Twitter and Instagram, and use a separate email address for petitions. Use encrypted messaging platforms such as Signal to prevent the interception of your communication. Encryption, however, does not protect against the confiscation, theft, or loss of your device. 
  7. At the protest itself, turn your phone off and/or leave it on airplane mode to mitigate the impact of Stingray surveillance. Even better, use a burner phone. We recommend disabling your facial recognition and fingerprint passcode (ie Face ID and Touch ID), leaving only a manual passcode. If your phone is confiscated or taken, your face or finger cannot be used without your consent to unlock your device.  

As we continue to center the efforts, resources, and leadership of our Black peers, by marching in protests, educating online, and donating: a question emerges– how do we become better allies, prioritize Black-made resources, and mobilize key lessons learned from our investigative work to protect the digital privacy and physical well-being of those leading and supporting the fight against police brutality and systemic racism? The dismantling of racism and excessive use of police force requires diligent, strategic, and coordinated actions across the multiple layers of our resistance– online and off. As investigators, we seek to empower protesters by providing the tools and knowledge to resist digital surveillance, protect our bodies, and engage our communities. Limit your visibility, and maximize your impact safely, whether you’re on the socials or on the streets. 

We offer this piece in memory of those named–including George Floyd, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor–and unnamed.

Written on behalf of Open Source Researchers of Color (OSROC)