Tempting as it might be to just roll on up to a protest, a little planning can go a long way, especially if you’re going to take your phone with you. We’ve talked about a helpful shortcut iOS users can use to keep themselves safe (and we have an Android version in the works!), but there’s a lot more you need to do with your device to ensure your protection and privacy.
Lock down your phone
You might even be well aware of the various court rulings that prohibits police from forcing you to give up your finger or your noggin to unlock your device for them, as well as your passcode. That won’t stop the police from trying, or even trying to cajole you into coughing up your login credentials in exchange for, say, processing you faster out of wherever it is you’re being held.
You can stand strong against police requests to unlock and search your device—they’ll need a warrant for that—but you also don’t have to make things easy for them. When you’re heading out to protest, consider:
Disabling face/fingerprint authentication entirely and set up your phone to use a long PIN or password instead. That’ll make it a lot harder for police to crack your security if they get their hands on your device (with or without a warrant).
Setting up encryption on your phone: This comes enabled by default on iOS and Android if you’re using a passcode. (On Android, you can check by visiting Settings > Security—at least, on my Pixel 3 XL, which is what I’m using for all the steps in this guide. YMMV.)
Adjusting your screen-lock time to nothing: Convenient as it is to not have to authenticate into your phone all the time when you’re actively using it, you might want to turn your screen-lock time down to zero, or a much smaller time than what you’d typically use at home.
Lock down your SIM card with a PIN number: You set this up on both Android (Settings > Security > SIM card lock) and iOS (Settings > Cellular > SIM PIN). When you do, nobody else will be able to impersonate you if, for whatever reason, they get physical access to your SIM card. That’s especially useful if someone else is trying to break through the two-factor authentication protection you use for other apps and services.
Set up secondary authentication wherever possible: Someone might be able to break into your phone, but if you can set up a separate password, PIN, or two-factor authentication for the apps you use most often, such as your messaging apps, then you might have an extra layer of defence. How helpful this is depends on the app. For example, my Home Depot app bugs me constantly for a 2FA code whenever I’m logging in to check my account, whereas Facebook only queries you at the point of an initial sign-in. If you have time to log out of your critical apps when the going gets rough during a protest, and your supplemental authentication doesn’t send a text message with a code to the very phone you’re holding—lock your 2FA app with a separate form of authentication, too—then that’s just one more digital wall someone has to overcome to see what’s on your device.
Turn off or secure your previews and notifications: Obviously, if someone gets hold of your device, they don’t need to even log in if all of your incoming texts and other notifications display directly on your phone’s screen. Turn off or set Show Previews to “when unlocked” in iOS (Settings > Notifications) or turn off notifications on your lockscreen in Android via Settings > Apps & notifications > Notifications.
Consider setting up Screen Pinning (Android) or Guided Access (iOS): If you need to access an app on your device pretty regularly—such as some mapping app that can help you get home—but you want to lock down the rest of your phone behind a PIN or password, then these two features will allow you to “sticky” one screen to your device. If you, or anyone else, tries to access the rest of your phone, they’ll need to authenticate as you. You’ll find Screen Pinning in Settings > Security on Android, and Guided Access in Settings > Accessibility on iOS.
Learn how to lock down your phone in an instant: Both iOS and Android come with a way to quickly lock down your device, which will force whoever next has your device to figure out a viable authentication method. This shouldn’t matter if you’ve set your device to immediately lock as soon as the screen goes off, but it’s worth remembering just in case.
On iOS (iPhone 8 or newer), hold down the Power and Volume Up buttons at the same time. On the emergency screen that appears, tap cancel, or simply tap the power button one more time to flip your phone off. When you power the screen back on again, you’ll have to enter your password (or passcode) to log in; Touch ID or Face ID will be disabled.
On Android, you’ll first need to visit Settings > Security, and tap on the gear icon to the right of your primary authentication option under the “Device Security” heading. You’ll then see an option for “Power button instantly locks,” which you’ll want to enable. You’ll also want to go to Settings > Display > Lock screen display and enable “Show lockdown option.” Then, whenever you hold down your device’s power button, you’ll see a new “Lockdown” option you can tap to disable your Smart Lock, biometric unlocks (face or fingerprint), and lock-screen notifications
Sign out of your social media: Generally speaking, if you don’t think you’ll use it during a protest, sign out of it. This includes Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the email you’ve tied to your device—anything that someone else could use to make your life a disaster (or affect your fellow protesters’ lives) were they to get their hands on your phone.
But I can still be tracked, right?
Yes. If you’re using your phone as you normally would, there are all sorts of ways that you can be tracked and possibly face legal issues for it later, depending on what’s happening at your protest. That includes using various social media sites, uploading photos and videos (that you haven’t scrubbed of any identifying information, including timestamps), and even just the very act of using your device to make phone calls, message others, et cetera.
That’s OK! I’ll just put my phone in Aeroplane Mode!
Well, that doesn’t quite work if you’re looking to stay anonymous AF. It’s a great feature that gives you a +15 against pissing off a flight attendant, but it’s not going to flick off your device’s GPS or prevent the apps on your phone from associating a GPS location with what you’re doing. And as soon as you hop back online again, this information will (invariably) go out to plenty of other sources on your phone: app developers, marketing firms, the manufacturer of your phone’s operating system, The New York Times, et cetera.
I should clarify that having your device on Aeroplane Mode is only really useful to prevent location tracking in real time. It won’t prevent your location from being tracked by your device, but it’ll at least make it a little harder for police to deal with you in the moment. There’s no guarantee that you won’t be swept up in some kind of post-protest arrest depending on what happens at your protest, what data of yours leaks out, what other recordings might have been made of you at an event, how your device is associated with the event, whether the police ultimately get their hands on your phone or online accounts, et cetera.
Also, put your phone on Aeroplane Mode—if you’re going this route—before you get to your protest location. If you’re already there for ten minutes and then flip your phone to Aeroplane Mode, you might as well just leave it on; if the police are smart, they’ll already know you’re there.
Have a friend help you take care of your phone’s data
I find that the buddy system is an equally effective way to maintain your security and safety during a protest. You’ll have to give up a little privacy temporarily, but it’ll be worth it.
Let a friend nuke your phone from afar: Tell your best friend, roommate, or loved one that you’re heading out to a protest, and you both should agree on some check-in times. That way, if you haven’t been in contact by a specific cut-off time, said friend can access the “lost phone” features Apple or Google provide and wipe your device. (Yes, you could do this, too, but I’m going to presume you’re caught up in the protest and don’t have time to tap through your device to start the process.)
If you’re going this route, make sure you back up your device before you leave for the event, so restoring it back to its previous state—whenever you get home—is simple.
Share your location with a trusted contact: If you don’t like the idea of handing over your Apple ID or Google login and password to someone else, at least give a friend access to your device’s location via Apple’s Find My, Google Maps (or Trusted Contacts app), or any other applicable apps you might use. This won’t help you keep your phone’s data safe if you lose your device or have it confiscated, but at least your friends and loved ones will know where you are—or it is.
What about a burner phone?
The best way to keep your personal life as private and safe as possible when protesting is simple and obvious: Get a cheap burner phone. All you need is a crappy $50 flip phone and a prepaid data plan that lets you send and receive calls and messages.
If you’re going to a protest and you don’t want to be tracked, but you still want to have the ability to communicate, wait until you’re away from your home and workplace to turn on your new device. Use your phone as needed during the protest, then turn it off before you head home. Repeat as necessary (and destroy the SIM when you’re done—wreck it yourself, and then toss its corpse in a public trash can).