How to Secure Your Phone for a Protest
Heading to a protest soon? Here’s how to make sure your whereabouts are not tracked.
By MAX EDDY
Jan 17 2017
The past few years have seen a resurgence in activism and protesting, and the controversial presence of a new president means protesting is likely to become even more commonplace. When you take the streets to demonstrate your beliefs, it’s important to know your rights, but it’s also important to take steps to secure your phone from theft, loss, and, of course, surveillance.
The Bad News
The options for crowd surveillance are numerous. Controversial devices called Stingrays have been used by local and federal law enforcement. These devices can trick your cell phone into connecting with it, instead of a cell tower, and intercept information without you necessarily realizing it. They can also extract identifying information from your phone and track your movements.
Intercepting individual messages from hundreds of thousands of people is doable, but it’s not particularly easy and doesn’t really make sense given the circumstances. If an authoritarian government were monitoring a massive protest, the goal would likely be intelligence gathering for future investigation. Observers would want to know who is at the event, who are they with, and what information can be extracted to monitor them later.
That said, a far easier method to figure out if someone attended a protest would simply by looking at their Facebook or Twitter pages, rather than placing these kind of resources in the field.
The Stingray and other devices can also block service to everyone within a particular area. In some scenarios, this is done in order to force phones to connect via less secure means (2G, whose encryption scheme has been broken, instead of LTE), but preventing people from communicating is often enough.
On the Wi-Fi end of things, specially designed devices can trick your phone into connecting by posing as a friendly Wi-Fi network and your phone, trying to be helpful, may automatically connect. While Stingray (and their hacker equivalents, Femtocells) devices are tricky pieces of equipment, a Wi-Fi network spoofing device is actually pretty easy to obtain and set up. Heck, I have two such devices sitting next to me (for entirely legal reasons).
Intelligence agencies may use Wi-Fi attacks like this, but given how easy these devices are to set up and how many out-of-towners will be in the area, coupled with the fact that cell service is going to be bad, it’s a great opportunity for criminals to target easy prey. No matter how tempting, do not connect to Wi-Fi at or near the event, and I highly recommend turning off your Wi-Fi radio while in the general vicinity.
There is also facial-recognition software to be concerned about, but to be honest, this is one of those things that I have kind of accepted.
Lastly, there are X-ray vans. They do exactly what you think: they scan people as they walk by. The Atlantic reported on this kind of equipment last year. I don’t know if it will be in the field at the inauguration, but it’s just a reminder that there’s more than one kind of surveillance.