Government Surveillance of Protestors
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Government Surveillance of Protestors

Governments around the world continue to ramp up surveillance of protests and civil unrest. Here, I have tried to collect the governmental use of technologies to monitor and disrupt movements in repressive and democratic countries alike.

Modern anti-protester tactics include many things: cell phone monitoring, communications disruptions, social media blocking, social media monitoring, and using cellular records to identify, arrest, and intimidate organizers.

With protests ongoing in the US and globally, I wanted to share tactics that I have been informed of or observed, as well as some counter tactics that protesters can adopt to attempt to limit government surveillance and interference.

Use your best judgement when considering tactics and counter measures. Be safe out there, and keep fighting for your rights and freedoms!

Stingray Cellphone Monitoring & Disruption

A stringray is a device that mimics a cell tower, and can be used to disrupt cellular service, track phone locations, monitor communications (listen in to phone calls), and retrieve unique phone identifiers (IMEI) from devices.

Stingrays should be considered very dangerous to any protest movement as they can identify all cellphones in an area, along with nearly exact locations of each individual over time (by asking the device for a list of towers and strengths, a user can be fully triangulated).

These can be mounted on a flying drone or a police car, and have been in confirmed use in the US since 2006.

Countermeasures: Unfortunately, stingrays are not easy to overcome without also disabling your phone. Here are a few things you can do, in rough order of simplicity and effectiveness:

  • Put your phone on airplane mode. Unfortunately, this will render other safety precautions outlined below impossible, so consider carefully.
  • Configure your phone to use only the latest network types (4G+), since many stingrays depend on older standards, especially 2G, which may not be possible in all cases(Disabling 2G in Android). On iOS, you may find something in carrier settings, but I don't know of a way to fully disable forced 2G downgrade attacks.
  • Use burner phones (using a separate SIM is not enough, as the IMEI will not change, though you could attempt to rotate all identifiers).
  • Try downloading anti-stingray apps, but it appears they are unlikely to work.
  • Work with locals to setup mesh wifi networks, using apps like bridgefy along with disabling wireless.

Predator Surveillance Drone & Ring Cameras

The Predator is used to surveil large geographic areas. From a 2013 showcase: A "1.8-gigapixel video surveillance platform that can resolve details as small as six inches from an altitude of 20,000 feet (6km)". They use multiple cameras for various forms of imaging and a single drone can monitor an entire city.

A predator was spotted flying over the Minneapolis protests.

In addition, many neighborhoods have Ring camera's installed, which allows police to view video feeds from doorsteps.

The main concern is mass use of video surveillance alongside facial recognition to identify large numbers of protestors. I don't have confirmation, but I think it's likely the drone resolution is still too low for facial recognition on the ground.

Countermeasures: It's unlikely that either of these tools can provide clear enough photos for facial recognition in protest conditions. If possible, wear masks and clothing that help prevent facial recognition. Other forms of identification are also possible, and harder to prevent, such as gait analysis.

Disinformation Campaigns & PsyOps

Not necessarily the local police, but disinformation to discourage gatherings, or to create violent conflict between groups based on false information. This may be as simple as users purposely posting incorrect meeting times and places to divide groups, or as complicated as generating false documents and events to create real news stories.

Interesting examples from the current protest include false claims that Antifa is invading a town (leading to the police notifying the military, leading to an official statement and hundreds of armed counter protestors) and police pushing down an old man, then falsely claiming he had tripped.

Countermeasures: It is generally easy to spot disinformation campaigns when other groups are targeted, but much harder to spot when disinformation aligns well with your world view and knowledge. Try not to fall for disinformation and document the truth to counter it in others.

  • Always be vigilant and skeptical of information shared. Try to find source documents instead of third party write ups, edited video, or opinion pieces.
  • Document things on the ground. This can be as powerful as photos and video, or as simple as writing down notes with date/time stamps and descriptions.
  • Learn how to spot disinformation, and teach those around you.

Social Media Spying

Police have been known to monitor social media - fake profiles / moles and automated social media analysis are regularly used. In 2016, it was heavily reported that police were using automated tools to identify, track, and create dossiers on Ferguson protests. (ACLU research, Brennan Center studies). These were often marketed to police departments as a way to "stay one step ahead of the rioters".

Geofeedia, the company most discussed in these articles, had some access revoked due to this reporting. However there are many companies that operate in this space, so consider this issue ongoing.

Countermeasures: There is likely little to be done. The trade off between getting a particular message out, planning, and anonymity is a difficult one. If possible, consider the following:

  • Create social media aliases for political activism unrelated to your real name. Companies like Facebook won't be fooled by this, but tools like geofeedia and moles will be. This works well for individuals who want to follow and attend events anonymously, less so for organizers or message amplifiers.
  • Leverage private, encrypted communications systems whenever possible. I recommend signal.

Arrest & Confiscate

Police have been seen arresting and holding individuals overnight without allowing a phone call. Additionally, if arrested while filming, your device may be confiscated or destroyed, and it can take some time to have it returned.

Countermeasures: Ensure that video you take is immediately saved off of your phone, and your device is setup to automatically notify others of your arrest.

  • Use the ACLU mobile justice app for your state to record police misconduct. This app claims to immediately upload the video. Facebook livestream and similar services are also a good choice.
  • Recent reports of protester arrests allege that they are sometimes held overnight without access to their phone or a call. Plan ahead and use apps like KiteString or Find my Friends to allow others to know if you are arrested.
  • This is a good article on securing your phone before a protest.

Conclusions

Surveillance is difficult or impossible to avoid when planning or participating in a protest. The best way to ensure that surveillance is limited is to never build capabilities against citizens in the first place, and to enforce strict controls and punishments against agents and organizations who do so anyway.

Support organizations who fight this fight every day. In the US, this includes the EFF, ACLU and FreedomWorks.

Charlie Belmer's Image
Charlie Belmer
USA

I live for privacy, security, and online freedom because these are the building blocks of a better society, one I want to help create.

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