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Should You Bring Your Phone To Protests?

Victoria Pappas
Victoria Pappas Law Student, Cardozo School of Law
I am a current law student interested in intellectual property and tech law.
  • Image by:
    Jan Vašek Pixabay
Hand holding an iPhone, Should You Bring Your Phone to Protests?

The death of George Floyd continues to cause thousands of people to protest worldwide. Many use their cell phones to document, post on social media, and stay connected to others when protesting. 


However, veteran protestors and legal experts often debate the pros and cons of bringing a cell phone to a protest. 


The pros of bringing your phone.


Should anything happen to you or someone you know at a protest, a phone is the fastest way to reach people and get help. 


You can also use apps and social media to get and give live updates about protest routes – places to avoid and places to gather. 


Cell phones also allow you to take photos and videos, both of which are powerful tools when it comes to exposing injustice and crime. 


Photos and videos also allow us to share the good things that happen at protests. In such a dark news cycle, these images help society see that not everything happening in the world is bad, and real change is already occurring. 


The cons of bringing your phone. 


Bringing your phone can compromise the safety of yourself and others. 


Your phone can be used by surveillance technology to track your movements and intercept your messages and calls. 


This means law enforcement can gain information that can potentially be used as evidence against you and others.


The American Civil Liberties Union explains that Stingrays (cell-site simulators) use signals to trick cell phones into connecting to them, thereby sharing information such as exact locations and the identities of the phone. 


Stingrays have bee used by organizations like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the police. It’s unclear if they’ve been used this past week, or what will happen in the future. 


If you use your phone to shoot video or take photos during a protest, and your phone is later confiscated by police, that media – of other protestors – could potentially be run through facial recognition software. 


Facial recognition software is getting more advanced every day. Law enforcement, including police in Minneapolis, regularly use it


Most law enforcement officials say they only use to it help identify victims


However, in other countries, activists have said facial recognition software is used by the government to crack down on free speech


What the police need to do before confiscating your phone


The ACLU says that if you are engaging in conduct that interferes with law enforcement operations, a police officer can order you to stop such conduct. 


But they cannot confiscate, demand to see, nor delete photos, videos, or data from your phone without a warrant. Warrants need to be submitted to and granted by a judge.


A police officer likely wouldn’t have a warrant with your name on it at a protest, so law enforcement can’t tinker with your phone at once. 


If you are in a public area, you have the right to take photos and videos in and of that space. You can even record the police as well. 


Note that laws regarding sharing audio recordings without consent from those in the recording vary by state but visuals (photos and videos without sound) are fully protected to share and take.


The police at protests are allowed to maintain law and order and can interfere when they believe there is a threat to such law and order. 


The only legal way for the police to search your phone is with a warrant


If an officer asks to search your phone, you do not have to consent. Officers may try to intimidate you into unlocking your phone and allowing them to search it. Don’t do it! 


You have the right to refuse to unlock your phone.


However, if you give consent and unlock your phone, they are allowed to conduct a search. 


Secure your phone with a complex password


If your phone can be unlocked using your fingerprint or FaceID, it can be easy for an officer to unlock your phone forcefully or without consent. 


It is suggested that you disable these functions before a protest and use a passcode. Passcodes generally make it harder to unlock a phone without consent. 


Should you find yourself in court at a later date, having a password will help your defense. 


Most courts have sided with defendants who were forced by police to unlock their phones using their own passwords.  


If your device is confiscated by the police, you can file a motion to get it back. 


You should get it back quickly, unless police argue that it’s being used as evidence for a case. 


How to protect your phone if you do bring it to a protest


If you need to bring your phone to a protest, there are steps you can take to protect it. 


1. Turn your phone off as much as possible or use your phone on airplane mode to avoid signal being picked up by cell-site stimulators. 


Note that you will not be able to call, receive or send text messages, or use the internet and social media while on airplane mode, so plan accordingly with friends and family. 


2. Use a burner phone instead of your regular cell phone when you go to a protest.  


3. If you need to message someone, consider using an app that encrypts your messages, such as Signal. These apps help keep your messages private and secure from cell-site stimulators and signals intercepting messages. 


4. If you are using your phone or apps, consider disabling all location services from your phone as well that way the app and other do not know about specific whereabouts. 


5. Take photos and videos while your device is locked. Most smartphones allow you to access the camera without unlocking your phone. This is another precaution to help keep your phone and data safe should your phone be confiscated by police or lost. 


6. If you want to only take pictures at a protest, consider bringing a digital camera instead of your phone. 


Other tips 

  • The ACLU created an app that saves users photos and videos of police misconduct to their organization in case such files are deleted or confiscated by police. 
  • If you are concerned about anonymity at the protest, make sure to wear a face mask (which should be done already due to the pandemic), sunglasses, hats, etc. Additionally, avoid wearing unique clothing, jewelry or accessories that can be used to identify you. These measures help facial recognition systems or photos and videos from easily exposing your identity. 
  • Although you are allowed to photograph and video (with audio limitations depending on the state), you may want to avoid directly photographing other people at the protest. Some people may want to be anonymous as posting a video or photo of them could get them in trouble. 
  • There are various apps and technologies that allow you to blur out parts of an image – meaning you can blur out someone’s face or identifiable features to protect their identity. 
  • If you use your phone to capture the protest, make sure to erase metadata. Metadata from photos and videos can reveal the time and location such media was taken at. It can also link the images to you and your device. 
  • You can get rid of such metadata by screenshotting the picture or video, either on a phone or computer. You can also send yourself a copy from the Signal app mentioned above. Make sure to save and post only the screenshots to avoid metadata linking your data to the protest.

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