If you’re taking to the streets to demand justice for the victims of police brutality and homicide, you may want to leave your phone at home. No matter how peaceful your behavior, you are at risk of getting arrested or assaulted by police. Cops might confiscate your phone and search it regardless of whether or not they’re legally allowed to, or they might try to break it, especially if it contains photos or video of their violent or illegal actions.
At the same time, it’s a good idea to bring a phone to a protest so you can record what’s happening and get the message out on social media. Filming police is completely legal and within your rights, and it’s one of the few tools citizens have against police brutality. It’s also important to be able to communicate with others in real time or to find your friends in case you get separated.
To reconcile this tension — between wanting to protect your privacy and wanting to digitally document protests and police misdeeds — the safest option is to leave your primary phone, which contains a massive amount of private information about you, at home and instead bring a specially prepared burner phone to protests.
I discuss how to do this at length below, and in the video above.
I bought a Nokia 1.3 smartphone for $99, as well as three months of prepaid phone service for $40. If this is too expensive for you, you may have other options:
If a separate burner phone still isn’t an option and you decide you need to bring your primary phone, here are some steps to take to make it safer and less likely for your private data to end up in the hands of the police:
There are additional tips for non-burner phones in a video I made with my colleague Lauren Feeney in 2017, “How to Protect Your Privacy at a Protest.”
The main criteria for picking out a cheap burner phone is cost, which means iPhones are out. You may be able to find an old or refurbished iPhone for around $200, but Android phones can do the job just as well for much less. It’s common for low-end Android phones to be riddled with security issues that never get fixed, so the next criteria is finding a phone that supports the latest security updates.
With this in mind, I settled on the Nokia 1.3, which I bought for $99 on Amazon. This phone was released in March 2020, and it comes with the latest version of Android (the Go edition for low-end devices). It seems to have a good battery life and a decent camera, which is about all that’s required for this phone.
I was also looking for a cheap prepaid phone plan and ended up choosing Mint Mobile. I ordered a SIM card that comes with 3 months of service, also on Amazon, for $40.
I’m using this phone and this phone service, but these steps should be similar no matter what model phone or phone service provider you go with.
Everyone who is serious about digital security should be using a password manager. Password managers are apps that create and store passwords for you, allowing you to use strong, random passwords without needing to memorize them. All your passwords are saved in an encrypted vault, and you unlock them using a single passphrase that you do memorize.
The process of setting up this burner phone requires keeping track of a bunch of passwords, so if you’re not already using one, you should set one up first. Some good options are Bitwarden, KeePassXC, LastPass, and 1Password.
When you’re setting up your burner phone, you’ll want to save the following information in your password manager:
Watch the video for a complete tutorial on configuring the Nokia 1.3 to get ready to bring to a protest. Much of the advice applies to other up-to-date Android phones. The tutorial steps include:
I also went to a Black Lives Matter protest in Oakland, California, to field test this burner phone. The video includes photos and footage that I took so you can see the quality of the camera.
If you carry a phone with you, you don’t have location privacy. Police are able to use devices called cell-site simulators, also known as Stingrays or IMSI-catchers, to monitor and collect data from all phones at a protest. Additionally, telecom and tech companies collect their own vast location databases from phones, and this sort of data is not possible to anonymize.
Using a burner phone can help with this problem, especially if you leave it powered off or in airplane mode except when you need to use it. But if you actually want to make sure your burner phone isn’t connected to your identity in any way, you have to do a lot more work:
If they search your burner, they’ll gain access to far less information about your life, your friends, and your activism.
You also need to take additional steps to stay anonymous at a protest, such as wearing nondescript clothes, covering your face (you should be doing this anyway since we’re in the middle of a global coronavirus pandemic), covering tattoos, and making a plan to avoid license plate readers or using public transit cards that can track your movements.
Keeping yourself completely anonymous while using a burner phone for protests is outside the scope of this article. Instead, these steps present a middle ground where it’s more difficult, but not impossible, for police to learn your identity, and if they confiscate and search your burner phone, they’ll gain access to far less private information about your life, your friends, and your activism than if they had confiscated your primary phone.
Each time you’re preparing to go to a protest, it’s important to know exactly what you’ll be bringing with you. Leave all electronics at home except for your burner phone: Don’t bring a laptop, a smartwatch (sorry, your steps won’t count), USB sticks, or anything else. And if you’re planning on using your burner phone to bring to different protests, make sure to delete all your photos and videos from the burner phone after copying them to another device, and to delete any Signal conversations from previous protests, before you head out.
It’s always safest to go to protests with a buddy or a group of friends. You should put the phone numbers of everyone you know who will be at the protest in your burner phone in case you need to contact them. If your friends are bringing burner phones of their own, put their burner numbers in your contacts.
You should also make sure you know who to call in case you get arrested. Protest organizers should provide attendees with a legal support phone number, often run by an organization like the National Lawyers Guild. You should write this phone number on your skin with a permanent marker. If you get arrested, the police will confiscate your phone so you won’t be able to look it up there. You’ll want to call this number from jail in order to get legal support.
And it’s important to keep in mind that the coronavirus pandemic is still ongoing. Make sure to bring a face mask and hand sanitizer, and attempt to social distance when you can to avoid spreading the virus. It’s also always a good idea to bring a bottle of water.
No matter what cops might tell you, it’s completely legal to film them in public. Filming the police is one of the few tools citizens have to force accountability on them. If it weren’t for people filming police brutality on their cellphones, we wouldn’t have nearly so much evidence of widespread systemic racism within American police forces.
It’s good to share photos and videos from protests on social media, but you should also be mindful of the wishes of other protesters. While you’re legally allowed to film anything in a public gathering, it’s respectful to ask permission before taking photos of people’s faces.
If you’re paying for enough mobile data, you may want to configure Google Photos to automatically upload all photos and videos you take to the cloud. This way if police confiscate or damage your phone during the protest, you’ll be able to log in to your burner Google account from another device to access your media later on. Be aware, however, that pictures in Google Photos are not encrypted, meaning Google will be able to provide them to authorities if subpoenaed.
Even if you’re peaceful and aren’t breaking any laws, police might arrest you at a protest. If you can tell that you’re about to get arrested, and it’s safe to do so, power off your phone. This makes it a lot harder for cops to get into your phone.
Police do not have the right to search your phone without your consent unless they get a warrant. If an officer asks you to unlock your phone, or if they grab your phone from your hands while it’s unlocked, tell them: “I do not consent to a search of my phone. I want to talk to a lawyer.” (It’s OK if you don’t have a lawyer yet, you should still say this.) They may confiscate your phone and illegally search it anyway, but it’s best to make it clear at the moment that you don’t consent.
It’s also possible that cops might try to steal or break your phone, especially if they noticed you filming them being violent. If any of this happens, at least it will just be your cheap burner phone with minimal data on it rather than an expensive phone full of private information about your life and your activism.