How Protesters at the RNC Can Protect Themselves From Digital Surveillance

Activists at the political conventions should prepare themselves and their cellphones.

An anti-Trump protester holds his protest sign in front of mounted police outside a rally for Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. March 12, 2016.
A protester holds a sign outside a rally for Donald Trump in Cleveland on March 12.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters

The Republican National Convention starts Monday. But the conservative leaders, GOP fans, and journalists aren’t the only ones descending on Cleveland for the event—it’s estimated that thousands more protesters will be on the scene. People are making signs and banners. Immigration activists from across the country are building a wall to protest Donald Trump’s stance on borders. The incendiary Westboro Baptist Church obtained a permit to march. And to top it all off, Ohio is an open-carry state.

Republican and Democratic conventions have a history of strong activist presence, and they’re typically punctuated with hundreds of arrests. The 2004 Republican National Convention in New York led to more than 1,800 arrests. And after the 2012 Democratic convention, the city of Denver lost a lawsuit brought on by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado following the indiscriminate mass arrest of more than 100 people during a march. This year’s conventions could be significantly more contentious. In the shadow of the deadly police shooting in Dallas earlier this month and the one in Baton Rouge just this weekend, Cleveland law enforcement and Ohio state police are on high alert. They’re not working alone. The FBI is in town, along with the Department of Homeland Security and a full alphabet soup of federal and local agencies. The city prepared space in the jail to process as many as 1,000 people in a single day.

While most people won’t get arrested, everyone in the area will get caught in law enforcement’s surveillance dragnet. Federal officials have the equipment to intercept calls and texts. Ohio police and the FBI have cameras that run through face recognition databases. They can monitor location data, as well as specific cars. (It’s not clear that all of this technology will be used during the conventions, but protesters should be aware of all possibilities.) Furthermore, hosting a national political convention usually gets a city a $50 million grant from Congress to buy equipment it may need, which typically includes a wide array of cameras, surveillance trailers, and other high-tech spy gear that can stay with a police department for years. Furthermore, according to the ACLU of Ohio, under the city’s flash mob law, if you show up to an event you learned about on social media “to commit a crime,” your cellphone is classified as a criminal tool, and you can be arrested for using your phone.

In the months leading up to the RNC, the city of Cleveland released a PowerPoint detailing a local coordination center established just for the convention that receives the feeds from more than 100 cameras installed throughout the city. All that information is likely also processed at the Northeast Ohio Regional Fusion Center, an information clearinghouse set up by the Department of Homeland Security that shares intelligence between the National Security Agency, the FBI, and state and local law enforcement, all in the name of preventing terrorism. DHS runs 78 fusion centers across the country.

If you’re in the Cleveland area this week or plan on attending the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia at the end of the month, expect to be surveilled, whether or not you’re taking part in demonstrations. If you do plan to protest, here are some tips for staying safe and coming prepared—not only to protect your privacy, but also to document in case something goes wrong.

Lock your phone

While the police will likely confiscate your phone if you’re arrested, according to the Supreme Court, they’re still supposed to get a warrant to search it if the screen is locked.

If you have an iPhone, you should create a strong passcode (the newest iOS requires a minimum of six characters, but you can also switch to a custom alphanumeric passcode that can be longer) and disable the biometric Touch ID function. Some courts have ruled that law enforcement can force you to use your fingerprint to unlock a phone, but they can’t force you to reveal your password.

Just go to Settings then Touch ID & Passcode and enter an unpredictable alphanumeric code. Apple also gives the option of bricking your phone after 10 failed passcode attempts. Enable this feature if you have sensitive information you don’t want seen if your phone is seized or stolen; choose Erase Data in the Touch ID & Passcode window.

If you have an Android phone, go to Settings then Security and choose to use a PIN or password to lock your screen. Don’t pick anything predictable, such as 8888 or your cat’s name. Make it something you’ll remember and at least six characters long, but try not to use personal information or recycle a password from another account.

For both iPhone and Android users, be sure to revoke access to all notifications when your screen is locked. If the police take your phone, you don’t want them reading texts on your lock screen. And if you’re at a protest, opt to have your phone lock immediately in case it gets confiscated.

Use encrypted messaging

Texting is often the best way to stay coordinated, but since the RNC and DNC are both such high-profile political events, it’s best to assume law enforcement will be using a piece of technology called a stingray to surveil calls and texts. Stingrays mimic cellphone towers to trick phones to link to them, enabling police to collect location information and data on who you called and when and for how long. While law enforcement is extremely secretive about how they use the tech, documents obtained by the ACLU show stingrays are capable of recording the content of your texts and calls. The ACLU has been mapping known uses of stingrays by state and local police, but it doesn’t currently have information about their use in Ohio—and federal agencies definitely have them.

The best way to circumvent fake cell tower surveillance by using an encrypted communication app. IMessages are encrypted end-to-end, but only if the person you’re texting has an iPhone too. If you want ensure that all texts and calls are encrypted no matter whether the person on the other end is an Android or an iPhone user, download Signal and have everyone you plan to text during the event do the same. Signal is a free app that encrypts your texts and phone calls, as well as photos and videos you send, making them unreadable to an unintended recipient. And importantly for activists in the field, there’s an option to start encrypted group messaging that will also be unreadable if collected by surveillance tech.

Be prepared to film

Finally, filming the police is a First Amendment activity and can help protect victims of violence from wrongful accusations. If you see something happening that you think needs to be documented, it’s your right to capture it. You can use your phone’s camera, but be sure to save the footage and share it with someone or on social media right away in case your phone gets confiscated or damaged during a confrontation.

It’s also not uncommon for a nervous or angry police officer to try to take your phone or stop you if you’re filming, which means two things: a) be sure you set your lock screen to activate immediately if you think you might film, and b) consider airing a live broadcast. If you’re a Facebook user, you can livestream on Facebook via the mobile app. If you prefer Twitter, livestream using Periscope, but you’ll want to download the app and link it to your Twitter account before you go to your event.

This isn’t comprehensive—law enforcement may have other technologies and methods that we don’t know about. At the same time, some of this may sound a bit paranoid. But if you’re going to protest at the conventions, you should prepare to protect yourself, given the charged atmosphere between demonstrators and law enforcement right now.

Oh—don’t forget sunscreen.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.