Learn how to use your phone to organise and participate in actions, while minimising the risks.
You don’t need tech knowledge to understand this article. But you might want a bit of help putting the things into practice. If so you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mobile phones are fantastic tools for rebellion. They allow us to organise and participate in mass actions, staying in touch while we are on the streets. In the noise and confusion of an uprising we can still hear each other. Surrounded by police, we can still communicate privately.
But people are also concerned - and rightly so - about using their phones during actions, or for sensitive communications about actions. Although we don’t try to “get away” with our actions, sometimes action plans require some secrecy. And if the state decides to go heavy on us, then people who organise actions could be targeted for surveillance or given trumped-up charges. Bear in mind you are not just protecting yourself, but those you communicate with.
I’m going to start by giving you some basic tips. I would recommend putting them all into practice if you intend to help organise actions, or participate in them. Afterwards I will go into more detail for those who are interested.
Tip 1. Set a screen lock pattern or password. This is the most important thing of all! If you use a pattern, make it a complicated one. Or, better still, use a password. It’s inconvenient I know, but you can always change it just for the action, and change it back to something easier afterwards. Depending on your phone it might ask if you want to require the password/pattern at startup - click yes. You are under no legal obligation to tell the cops your password or unlock your phone for them (no XR people have been asked this anyway).
IPhone: Click here for instructions
Android: Click here for instructions
Tip 2. Do not use SMS (old fashioned text messages) for communications about actions. These can easily be read by police if you are arrested with your phone, or requested from your mobile network company. Use an encrypted chat app instead. The best one is Signal Private Messenger. If you use Signal then no-one can read your messages unless they have access to your actual phone. Whatsapp is similar, but many activists don’t trust it, mostly because it’s owned by Facebook.
HOW? Install Signal Private Messenger from the App Store or Google Play.
Tip 3. During actions, stop Signal notifications from popping up when your screen is locked. If the cops get your phone you don’t want them to see all the messages from your affinity group popping up without them even having to unlock it! Do this for Whatsapp too if you are communicating about the action on there. I would advise non-arrestables to do this as well as arrestables. I have seen non-arrestables get arrested quite a few times now!
HOW? Android: Go to Settings->Apps->Signal->Notifications->Hide Sensitive Content.
iPhone: Click here for instructions.
Tip 4. Make sure your phone is encrypted. This means if the cops get hold of your phone and try to use some tech to extract data from it, they won’t be able to decipher it, especially if the phone is completely switched off. Again, worth doing whether arrestable or not.
HOW? iPhones are all encrypted by default, as are recent Androids.
For older Androids, go to Settings->Security->Encrypt Phone. You will need to have the phone plugged in and expect it to take a while.
Tip 5. Be organised to avoid people getting arrested with their phones. Welfare people especially, be prepared to look after people’s phones. It’s worth having some food bags and a marker, to bag and label phones, and pieces of paper with your number on to give to people whose phones you take (so they can borrow someone else’s and call you if need be). Of course only do this if you are very very unlikely to get arrested yourself! Turn off (completely) any phones you are given, just in case the worst happens.
Tip 6. If you think you are about to be arrested, turn off your phone and give it to someone to look after. When is the right time to do that, depends on how many of the rest of these security tips you follow. If you have not followed them, do this in good time. If you have followed them all you can afford to take more of a risk. Some actions are very mobile and need constant communication to keep up with changes in plan, and you might want to keep your phone till the cops give you the first warning. Other actions are more static and you hardly need the phone, and can deposit it in good time. If you miss the chance to give it to anyone, at least turn it off.
Tip 7. Be aware of the risk but don’t panic. If you are arrested with your phone, the cops can get your SIM card which contains your phone number, your SMS text messages and your call logs. But if you’ve used online chat for all your action comms, and your phone is encrypted, powered off, and requires a hard-to-guess screen lock pattern/code to start it, then the risk of them finding anything to use against us is extremely low.
OK, so now you know the basics. (If you need help, contact email@example.com.) If that’s enough, thanks for reading and please put those tips into action! But if you want to know WHY, and make your own mind up about it, then please keep reading. I’ll also throw in a couple extra tips, about email and contacts.
DEEPER DIVE There are three main things people worry about when it comes to phones and activism.
Worry that the the authorities can find out where you have been. If you use your phone during an action, then technically your mobile network (e.g. Vodafone or T-Mobile) will be able to find out your location at the time of an action, and they may pass this on to the police. Depending on the type of phone and the apps it is running, Google or Apple or Facebook may also be able to get information about where you were.
Concern that the company providing the services you use to communicate with (such as Gmail or Whatsapp) might able to access your communications, and then pass these to the police. Or that the UK secret service can listen in to your communications.
Fear of getting arrested with your phone, and the police getting access to your communications, your phone number or your contacts while the phone is in their possession.
Let’s go through these one by one and look at what the risks entail, and what we can do to mitigate them. We want to make ourselves as safe as possible while not sacrificing our ability to communicate, which is so crucial to our ability to participate in actions effectively. I hope that after reading the following, you will be able to make an informed decision about what steps you want to take for yourself.
- Location - this is probably not an issue.
In general when it comes to XR, I don’t think we need to worry about people finding out where we are. We are not engaged in the kind of highly illegal activity where our mere presence at a location could incriminate us. But if you have your own reasons for wanting to hide your location, then turn off your phone during actions.
- Companies or secret service getting access to our data.
Here, it is important to distinguish between communications on the mobile phone network - that is, old-fashioned text messaging (SMS) and mobile calls - as opposed to online services such as email, Facebook and Whatsapp. I will look at all of these in turn.
Mobile phone calls. When you make a mobile phone call, your mobile network company keeps a log of who you called / who called you. This is used for itemised billing, etc. If asked, they will give this to the police. But they do not record the actual conversation. However the secret service does sometimes record phone calls and does have ways of listening in to them. I don’t think this need concern you if you are participating in the kinds of actions XR has done so far. But to avoid your contact network being found out though call logs, I’d advise using a trusted online service for phone calls instead (more on this below).
Standard text messages (SMS). Mobile network companies store your text messages. If asked, they will access this storage and send copies of your text messages to the police. This is easy for them to do, and there have been cases of people involved in non-violent direct action having their text messages read out in court. Also, if the police do seize your phone they can easily read your text messages (more on this below). So I would recommend avoiding text messages for sensitive communications.
Email. The company providing your email service keeps copies of your emails. Most well-known email services (such as Gmail and Hotmail) store them unencrypted. This means that the company can read the emails and can give them to the police. There are some exceptions, Protonmail for example, where they encrypt the emails in their storage, so if the cops looked in there they would just see gobbledegook. If you are setting up an email account specifically for action purposes, it’s a good idea to use Protonmail.
Apps for messaging and calling. There are many ways of sending messages and making phone calls online. Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, etc. Some of these store your messages encrypted and some not. Whatsapp does, but there are some issues with it. It is owned by Facebook, who many activists do not trust. And it backs up your messages to Google Drive by default (on Android), where they are stored unencrypted. (You can turn this off, but you can’t expect everyone in you action-planning group to do so too). The messaging app that activists trust the most is Signal. Signal is “open source” which means the entire code of the program is available to look at. And tech activists have looked at it and they trust that the encryption really does work. You can use Signal for voice calls as well as for messaging.
Contacts. By default, contacts are stored in your Apple account (iPhone) or Google Account (Android). This means Google or Apple can see your contacts and possibly give them to the police. I think this is very unlikely given the level of actions XR usually do, but if it bothers you then you can save your XR contacts to the phone itself instead. On Android, this can be done when you add a new contact, using the dropdown saying “Google account” and changing it to “Phone”. But beware, if you lose or break the phone you will lose those contacts!
- Getting arrested with your phone.
If you get arrested with your phone, then obviously the police will take it off you while you are in custody. They will most likely give it back, I haven’t heard of anyone in XR having it kept longer. The first thing to think of is how much they will be able to get from the phone just by looking at it. Then we will consider what they can get from your SIM and the possibility of them downloading data from the phone itself.
Of course if you have no screen lock they can see everything. Also there’s no point using a secure messaging app if the notifications keep popping up while the screen is locked, showing all the action planning going on in your affinity group while you’re in the cells! But these things are easily fixed, see above.
Mobile call logs and SMS are stored on your SIM card. It is easy to take a SIM card out of a phone and read the data on it. They can read your texts and see who you have been talking to. This is why it is a good idea not to use mobile phone calls and SMS text messages for action stuff.
They can easily get your phone number from the SIM. They could use this to ask your mobile phone company for data such as your SMS messages, call logs and location. (Although they could quite easy get this from your name and address, too. The number just makes it easier).
As well as this, if they are very keen to get hold of your communications they might try to download the data from the phone itself using advanced technology that we know police forces do have access to. But if your phone is encrypted they will have wasted their time, as all they will see is gobbledegook. This is especially true if the phone is switched off. If they take it while it is running, it is technically possible to extract some data. But it’s the kind of thing they would probably do to spies or terrorists, rather than the likes of us.
If you follow the security tips above then you minimise your chances of being spied on or of the cops getting anything sensitive if they get hold of your phone. In fact all they can get hold of is your phone number and some text messages and call logs. It’s still worth handing your phone to a welfare person if you are about to get arrested, just in case. But there is nothing to panic about if you do leave it too late.
However, if you have NOT followed the security tips, then please hand your phone to someone else earlier rather than later. If you are arrested with your phone and it has no screen lock, or notifications popping up everywhere, or action planning done over SMS, then you could end up leaking secret plans or getting yourself or others into more trouble.