Why You Should Change Your Phone Settings Before Protesting

Something as seemingly simple as the information on your phone could put your security in jeopardy in the wrong hands. Here are some ways to protect your information, and yourself, before you attend a protest.

Throughout late May and early June, Americans (and people all around the world) have been gathering to protest against police brutality and white supremacy as they demand justice for George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who was killed while in police custody, and many others. The protests represent an inspiring response to this country’s deeply rooted issues with race and policing, and you may have considered participating.

But, dismayingly, even peaceful protesters have been arrested and had their rights infringed upon by law enforcement in multiple cities across the United States, according to Al Jazeera. There have been reports of police confiscating and trying to unlock people’s phones, according to Consumer Reports. However, in January 2019, a California judge ruled that police cannot force anyone to unlock their phone or device using face identification or a fingerprint as it’s a violation of the Fifth and Fourth Amendments, according to CNET.

Of course, increasing digital safety is only one of the ways to protect yourself should you choose to protest. Black Lives Matter and Good Call NYC have compiled resources to help protesters stay as safe as possible. Surveillance Self-Defense also has a comprehensive list of steps you can take to protect your digital assets.

Should you leave your phone at home?

There are pros and cons to bringing your phone with you to protests. For one thing, documenting the voices of Black Americans is crucial to spreading the message that Black lives matter (though you should still be mindful before freely posting something where someone could be easily identified). And, of course, your phone can be a resource for staying in contact with others and getting you from one point to the next.

But on the other hand, there are a number of reasons to consider leaving your phone at home. “If you don’t have it with you, then you can’t be tracked by it,” says Alex Hamerstone, GRC practice lead at TrustedSec. What’s more, “in the chance you are arrested, it isn’t uncommon that your property may go missing in the chaos. If you want to stay connected, which you should, consider buying a cheap prepaid phone to keep with you. This advice is especially important if you are using a phone issued by your employer, as many employers are able to monitor the phones they issue.”

But if you do choose to bring your smartphone to a protest, before you take to the streets, there are some tweaks to your phone settings that you can make to better protect yourself and your information.

Turn off face/touch ID

It’s still a tricky legal matter whether biometric “unlock” options fall under the same legal umbrella as passcodes. For instance, courts have ruled that police can’t force someone to provide a password to unlock a phone, and that they would need a warrant to access your information. It’s similar to the old idea that “you have the right to remain silent.” Likewise, in the digital age, you have a right to keep information on your phone private. But courts have reached divergent conclusions on whether biometric options, like Face ID and fingerprint recognition, should be protected under the Fifth Amendment the same way.

To prevent your phone from being unlocked by these features, disable them. Instead, set up a long password (the more complicated the better). Here are some of the most and least secure phone passwords.

“If you are going to keep your biometric unlock features turned on, then know how to quickly disable them,” Hamerstone says. “iPhones allow you to press the side and volume buttons simultaneously to disable Face ID and require your passcode.”

Make your phone lock instantly

Turning off Face ID is only helpful if you’re making sure your phone is going to lock in the first place. Turn your screen-lock time down to zero so that you can be sure it’s locked at all times. Lifehacker provides a detailed description of how to do this on iOS or Android:

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.

“This is recommended even if you aren’t somewhere that you are specifically concerned about privacy, as with the amount of our lives that are on our phones, they should be kept locked whenever they aren’t in use anyway,” Hamerstone says.

You can still take photos and videos with your phone locked. Per Surveillance Self-Defense:

With Android Pixel devices, double-press the power button.

At the iOS lock screen, you can firmly press on the camera icon. Older iOS devices require you to swipe.

Turn off location services

U.S.-CHICAGO-PROTESTXinhua News Agency/Getty Images

There’s an easy way to do this that you’ve probably already done for very different reasons: Put your phone in airplane mode. This will stifle real-time location tracking of your device if you do it before you arrive at the location of the protest. Likewise, turn off Wifi and shut off Bluetooth and Near-Field Communication, which can also track your location. “Of course, this makes your phone useless for a lot of things phones are used for, but you can turn off airplane mode if you need to make a call or send a text,” Hamerstone says. “Keep in mind that using free Wifi, whether provided by the city or a business, will open you up to additional issues.”

If you’re going to communicate by phone, use apps that are built for privacy

You may have heard about apps like Signal that allow you to send encrypted messages and make encrypted calls—and they are beneficial. “For communications, use apps such as Signal or WhatsApp that are encrypted and designed to provide privacy,” Hamerstone says. “Using basic text messaging and the like can allow for much easier eavesdropping and monitoring.”

However, keep in mind that you can’t use these apps while you have your location services off. “You have to make a choice,” says Michael Sias of Firm19. “Either you want to protect your location/identity and not use the phone, or use it and submit to that. If you opt for WiFi, just bear in mind it’s likely going to be a city hotspot, run by the government.”

If you choose not to use your phone for communication, you should absolutely make sure, well beforehand, that you and your friends have a place to meet in case you get separated.

Turn off previews/notifications

US: Thousands gather in DC to protest Floydâs deathAnadolu Agency/Getty Images

Whether you think it’s convenient or annoying, you probably know that texts, social media alerts, and even ads can pop up on your phone’s lock screen. If you’re attending a protest, you don’t want that to happen, since those notifications could provide more information that could potentially be used to incriminate you. It’s pretty easy to turn off notifications; there should be an option in “Settings,” most likely under “Lock screen,” “Apps & notifications,” or “Notifications” depending on your device.

Don’t overshare

As we mentioned already, sharing the message is important—but because it can undermine anonymity, it can have negative consequences as well. Make sure to think before you share. “A lot of people who worry about being tracked have no qualms about sharing information freely on social media,” Hamerstone says. “Sharing photos of yourself or others on Facebook or Twitter means that just about anyone can see where you are and what you are doing.”

At a minimum, wait to share your content until after the protest. Consider sending photos and videos you’ve taken to friends (ideally ones who aren’t at the protest), backing the media up so that you won’t lose it if your phone is confiscated.

Above all, please protest responsibly and safely. Protesting is one of the many ways that you can support Black Lives Matter and become more anti-racist.

For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.