Pin It
Surveillance at protests
Photography Michał Jakubowski, via Unsplash

How to protect yourself from surveillance at protests

Millions are marching against police brutality after George Floyd’s murder – here’s some tips on how to maintain your privacy while demonstrating

Today (June 3), demonstrators in the UK have once again taken to the streets in solidarity with protesters in the US, who are continuing to march against police brutality and systemic racism for the eighth night following the murder of George Floyd last week (May 25).

Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, was killed by a white police officer, who knelt on his neck for nine minutes, ignoring his cries of “please, I can’t breathe”. His murder has led to worldwide protests, with the US seeing its biggest civil uprising in over 50 years.

The mass demonstrations have seen activists clash with police, the latter of whom have been criticised for their use of unjust violence, including firing tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters – sometimes even just for a presidential photo op

Amid its increasingly desperate techniques to demonise demonstrators, the US government has given new powers to the country’s Drug Enforcement Administration, granting them authority to conduct covert surveillance and collect intelligence on those participating in the protests. With the media already swarming the streets – and occasionally getting arrested live on air – protesters are under constant watch.

“Surveillance technologies can violate peoples’ exercise of fundamental freedoms,” Kuda Hove, a spokesperson for Privacy International, tells Dazed, “in part by making it hard for protesters to remain anonymous, and by making it easy for police to target the same individuals after the protests.” 

“The shocking reality is that we’ve now found ourselves in an environment of global mass surveillance on an absolutely extreme level where everything that we do is tracked and recorded somewhere,” says Silkie Carlo, the director of UK-based civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch. “For many of us, that doesn’t affect us in our day-to-day lives, but for people who are at risk – political activists, dissidents, migrants, or so many other groups who don’t have political safety, especially those who try to challenge governments – this seriously endangers the possibilities of effective organising.”

For those of you heading to Black Lives Matter protests, here’s a guide on how to protect yourself from surveillance. The advice is based on police powers in the UK, but many points can be attributed globally. You can also find out how to protest safely during a pandemic here.


Although the internet is a fantastic resource for organising protests and mobilising activists, it’s also an easy way for the police to track who’s planning on attending. Carlo describes it as a “double-edged sword”, and recommends that people think twice before clicking ‘attending’ on a Facebook event for a march. “You don’t need to publicly register that this is something you’re going to,” she explains. Instead of getting the Facebook notification, add the event into your phone calendar and set a reminder if you think you’re likely to forget.


One key thing to look out for at protests is the police filming the event. “They’re not doing that for no reason,” Carlo tells Dazed, “but relatively little is known about precisely what’s done with that data. When they used to do this ten years ago, they used to be called FITs – Forward Intelligence Teams – which were basically police officers who walked around with a camera on a stick. They would then make ‘spotter cards’ of people, and look for key organisers.” Carlo warns protesters to be especially cautious of these cameras because of automated video analysis technology, which can enable the police to automatically identify people. “Sometimes they’ll keep knowledge of you committing a minor offence, and when they want to prevent you from going to or organising another event, they’ll arrest you months down the line.” This footage is also helping to build a picture of who organisers are, which Carlo describes as “creepy and wrong”.

Police may also utilise their body cameras during protests, but should only do so when exercising police powers (although, obviously, we cannot trust the police). While body cams can be good for holding police to account, Carlo says they’re “not very regulated, so sometimes what we see is police just turning them on as they walk around, which basically turns them into walking CCTV cameras”. The police are supposed to inform those they’re near when they’ve got their body cams on, but again, they probably don’t, so one thing you can look out for is a red light on the camera, which appears when it’s switched on.

“(Police body cams are) not very regulated, so sometimes what we see is police just turning them on as they walk around, which basically turns them into walking CCTV cameras” – Silkie Carlo, Big Brother Watch


According to Digital Trends, police facial recognition technology that’s being used at protests can easily misidentify people. Unsurprising, really, given most tech is trained to identify white male faces, leading to higher misidentification for everyone else. For those in the UK, facial recognition should be easy to spot at demonstrations as the police are supposed to have clear signage when using it. “If they’re using the technology, it will be a van – either unmarked or with ‘facial recognition’ on it – with a camera on top,” says Carlo. “We haven’t seen them using it since the pandemic, and it would be an outrage if they used it for a protest.”


There are a lot of ways your phone can get you in trouble: its signal can be tracked by police, it could be seized and opened via biometrics (facial recognition or fingerprint unlocking) without your permission, or its metadata trails could be used to find protest organisers. Does this mean you should leave your phone at home? “It depends on what risks someone is trying to mitigate,” says Carlo. “If you’re a key organiser who’s trying to evade police surveillance, then you should certainly think about taking extra measures.”


Carlo says “phone tracking is certainly a very real possibility” at protests. “This is something that happens on a mass-scale in the UK everyday anyway. Sometimes police – this is all neither confirmed nor denied, but the evidence is overwhelming – have covert devices that act as fake cell towers. They can be used to block or intercept phone signals, and, in extremes, can be used to hack phones.” Switching your phone off or turning it onto airplane mode may help in avoiding being tracked. 

However, rest assured, just because phone tracking is likely, it doesn’t make it OK. “The tracking of phones during protests is an example of unregulated use of surveillance technologies in civic spaces to unjustifiably violate people’s right to privacy,” Hove tells Dazed. “It hinders their ability to freely communicate, organise, and associate with others.”


One way to protect yourself if you do take your phone to a protest is to use encrypted messaging services. Carlo recommends an app called Signal, which doesn’t collect the same metadata about who you’re talking to as WhatsApp. “If there’s a group of 10 who you’re talking to all the time in the lead up to a civil disobedience, that (data can be discovered by the police and will tell them) much more than the content of the conversations.” You can also put a PIN number on the Signal app, so even if you’re forced to open your phone – which police have the legal powers to do – your messages will still be protected.


Although it makes it very easy to unlock your phone and pay for your groceries, biometrics pose a new threat when it comes to privacy at protests. “If you’re using facial recognition (and have your phone seized), the police may not even ask for your PIN because all they need to do is hold it up to your face,” Carlo tells Dazed. “Same with fingerprint entry as well – it’s easier to defend yourself when a PIN is involved, both in terms of legal rights and practically, than it is with biometrics.” So, if you’re heading to a protest, it might be best to deactivate facial recognition or fingerprint unlocking if you’re concerned about being approached by the police.


Burner phones seem like a simple solution to avoid police inspection while still being able to contact your mates if you get lost, but Carlo says they’re actually worse than smartphones. “Because of the mass surveillance that goes on everyday, burner phones can easily be subject to extra surveillance because of mass pattern analysis. If there’s a cell of burner phones, it stands out like a sore thumb. Also the police can see if a handset is being passed around lots of different SIM cards.” Plus, as Hove says: “People should not have to buy burner phones in order to exercise their fundamental right to protest in support of a cause they believe in.”


One key thing that will provide protection against both surveillance and coronavirus during protests is wearing a face covering. However, while this will help hide your face from social media and the press, it may not protect you from facial recognition cameras. “In the past, covering one’s face with a bandana was enough to protect a protester’s anonymity,” says Hove, “but improvements in facial recognition technology mean that identifying protesters is possible even from partially covered faces. That is why there is a surge in privacy-enhancing tools, such as face paint or make-up, full face masks, smart bandanas, and even clothing with images to throw off facial recognition tools.”

If you’re particularly worried about being caught out by police, you should avoid wearing distinct clothing – stick to dark colours and avoid big logos. “Distinct clothing feeds into video analytics,” explains Carlo. “If you’re wearing a yellow hoodie, for example, the police can use software to pick out the person wearing the yellow hoodie, even from hours of footage.” As well as faces, police keep images of distinct markings in their databases, meaning it might be wise to cover up any obvious tattoos.


With the police going to drastic measures to catch protesters – see: the Dallas Police Department’s failed snitching app – social media users need to be careful about what they share online. “The first question is: do you upload? That’s a decision people should weigh up,” Carlo tells Dazed. “And then: who’s in the photo? Have they given permission? Obviously there’s a merit to documenting important events that are happening, and it’s impossible to get permission from everyone in a public place, but it’s a case of being sensible about it and not putting other people unduly at risk.” One thing Big Brother Watch does is pixelate photos, which can be done via a number of free apps – Carlo recommends Skitch. You can also use this image scrubber website, which helps anonymise protest photos. Another technique is to screenshot a photo as opposed to posting the original, which will remove the location data from the image file.