You can cop-proof your phone, but there’s a better way to stay safe - The Verge
sAs protesters met a wall of police surveillance this summer, tech writers set loose a flood of articles on how to “cop-proof” your phone. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals can be used to track you in a crowd, the articles pointed out, so it’s better to turn them off before you leave the house. Stingray devices can track you through the cellular signal, which means you might want to leave your devices on airplane mode. Police may try to search your phone if you’re detained — so experts recommend turning off biometric unlock features like fingerprints and facial recognition and rely on a password you can refuse to give up.
Social media is the clearest example of this tradeoff. Services like Geofeedia let police surveil posts geo-tagged within a certain area, drawing from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all at once. (There have been some API disputes — social networks aren’t thrilled about being used for surveillance — but most activists assume the basic product has remained intact.) At the same time, the broadcasting power of social media has become a huge part of modern protest infrastructure. Those channels can turn a single march into a citywide event, or knit dozens of individual protests into a nationwide movement. The surveillance and publicity are inseparable, both direct consequences of protesting in public.
In her 2017 book Twitter and Tear Gas, Zeynep Tufekci argues for a signaling theory of protest: your willingness to march in the streets signals a personal commitment to the issue. If you’re willing to spend the day marching, you’re probably going to show up at the polls. If you’re willing to protest peacefully, you might be willing to protest less peacefully if your demands aren’t met. According to Tufekci’s theory, a retweet isn’t worth much; it’s too easy, and doesn’t signal any meaningful commitment to the issue. Public civil disobedience lies at the other end of the spectrum. When a local NAACP leader in Portsmouth gets arrested while protesting a confederate statue, for example, their willingness to be publicly charged is part of the point.
But even with faces covered, a photograph can pose a threat to anyone in the frame. The most recent example was Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal, who was photographed attacking a Philadelphia police car with a flaming wooden shard during a protest in May. Two police cars were set on fire during the protest, and Blumenthal was charged with felony arson based on public photos of the scene. Her face isn’t visible in the photos, but you can see her t-shirt — a handprint reads “keep the immigrants, deport the racists,” which led the police to an Etsy shop where she had left a product review. Combined with the distinctive tattoo on her forearm, it was enough for them to bring charges against her.