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How to Cop-Proof Your Phone Before Heading to a Protest

Illustration for article titled How to Cop-Proof Your Phone Before Heading to a Protest
Photo: Getty

At some point, everyone reaches a limit where they can no longer sit back and stay silent about injustice in the world. However, if you do plan on attending a protest—even a peaceful one—there are some important precautions you should take with your phone before you go.

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Turn off biometric login and enable a PIN or password

In the U.S., while things like fingerprint and face recognition might functionally seem like the same thing as a PIN or password when it comes to unlocking your phone, depending on your location or jurisdiction, the law may treat those two login methods very differently.

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The big thing that separates biometric login methods from a PIN or password is that courts typically view the latter as information protected by the Fifth Amendment, which gives people the right to protect themselves against self-incrimination. That means if the police ask you for your PIN to unlock your phone (even if they have a warrant), you can simply refuse.

Illustration for article titled How to Cop-Proof Your Phone Before Heading to a Protest
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

However, when it comes to face or fingerprint login, the same rules do not necessarily apply, and in some cases, law enforcement personnel could forcefully press your finger to your phone or point its cameras at your face, thereby gaining access to its contents against your will. In 2019, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled cops are not allowed to force people to unlock phones using biometrics. However, that ruling only applies to people located in that district. The law isn’t entirely settled, and to be safe it’s better to remove biometrics from your phone entirely.

Enabling a strong PIN or password (not “1234" or “password,” please) instead of face or fingerprint login is the safest course of action. On iOS, navigate to Settings then scroll down and choose Face ID & Passcode to deactivate Face ID. Different versions of Android will have the settings for biometrics located in different areas, so you’ll want to check with your specific phone and version of Android. Look for Face Unlock or Fingerprint Unlock under Settings.

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You’ll also probably want to disable any digital assistants on your phone, as you don’t want Siri, Alexa, or the Google Assistant potentially snitching on you. This, again, depends on which phone and apps you use. On iOS, go to Settings and then choose Siri & Search and then deactivate both Listen for “Hey Siri” and “Allow Siri When Locked.” On Google devices, again, navigate to Settings and look for Google Assistant to deactivate it. For other voice assistants like Alexa and Cortana, you’ll want to navigate into the apps themselves or be safe and delete them altogether. You can always download them again later.

Know how to force-enable PIN/Password entry

Most people have their phones set to require a PIN or password after five or 10 minutes of inactivity, which normally is fine. In a protest, though, you don’t want someone to be able to access your phone without a password because you just had it unlocked. To change that on iOS, navigate to Settings and then Face ID & Passcode and change Require Passcode to Immediately. It’s again, more difficult to do on Android, but can usually be found in Settings under Security or Passcode.

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If you’re in a situation where your phone could potentially get confiscated and you haven’t already changed the passcode requirements, it’s important to know how to force your phone to require a PIN or password the next time anyone tries to unlock it.

The first way is to simply restart your phone, as on both Android and iOS devices, as long as you have a PIN/password set, the operating system will require a PIN/password upon restart.

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Illustration for article titled How to Cop-Proof Your Phone Before Heading to a Protest
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

But if you’re in a pinch, there are even faster ways. On modern iPhones, you can hold the lock button and either one of the volume buttons for a few seconds. If things are really dire, you can trigger a call to emergency services by pressing the lock and volume buttons together quickly five times.

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On Android, there’s a special Lockdown setting that can appear anytime you hold the phone’s power button down, but before you can use it, you need to enable the option in your device’s settings first. On most versions of Android, it’s found by going to Settings and then choosing Security & Location. Next, choose Lock Screen Preferences and Show Lockdown Options.

Turn on Airplane Mode to prevent government tracking

As we’ve seen in China, governments have started getting more sophisticated when it comes to using technology to monitor people, including the use of tracking devices that connect to nearby cell or wifi nodes. So if you really want to bring a smartphone to a protest to record videos or snap pictures, you may want to consider turning on your phone’s airplane mode to help hide your digital footprint.

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 Note: In iOS, turning on Airplane Mode only disables cellular data, which means you’ll have to disable wi-fi separately.
Note: In iOS, turning on Airplane Mode only disables cellular data, which means you’ll have to disable wi-fi separately.
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

Unfortunately, turning on airplane mode comes with the downside of your phone not being readily usable to communicate with others, so if you do temporarily enable airplane mode, it’s important to know how to quickly turn it off again. On Android, open the notifications tray with a swipe from the top of the screen and choose Airplane Mode. On iOS, swipe from the top right of the screen and press the Airplane button.

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Back up your data

If you’re heading out for some civil disobedience, you have to face the fact that you could lose all the data on your phone. So if you’re serious about making sure that doesn’t happen, you’ll want to back up your phone before you leave.

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On Android, you can back up your phone’s data to your Google account, so that later you can restore the back on on your phone, or even an entirely different Android device.

Meanwhile on iOS, there are simple ways to backup your device to iCloud or a local Apple computer, so you can safely restore everything in case your iPhone gets lost or damaged.

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Set up Personal Safety in Android or Emergency Contacts/Medical ID in iOS

Another thing to configure before you head out is any personal medical info and emergency contacts. In Android, Google’s Personal Health feature has a dedicated place to list emergency contacts, along with place to list pertinent medical details such as allergies, blood type, and more.

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Illustration for article titled How to Cop-Proof Your Phone Before Heading to a Protest
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

Meanwhile, on iOS devices, Apple provides a similar system as part of Apple Health that lets you create a Medical ID and health profile, with the option to add emergency contacts under the Emergency SOS settings.

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Consider Screen Pinning or Guided Access

While these features may only be useful in niche situations, it’s important to know that both Android and iOS have a way of displaying one app while locking everything else behind your PIN or password. This can be useful in case you need to hand over your phone to show a virtual insurance or ID card, but don’t want the police to have full access to your phone.

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Illustration for article titled How to Cop-Proof Your Phone Before Heading to a Protest
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

In Android, this feature is called Screen Pinning, while in iOS, it’s called Guided Access. While the setup varies slightly between platforms, both versions allow you to configure a way to provide limited access to an app or a file on your phone without giving someone free rein over the entire device.

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Finally, the other main things you should do before leaving for a protest is make sure your device is charged up and has lots of available storage. You might even want to put your phone in a case for added protection. Almost every phone nowadays has a way to access its camera without fully unlocking the phone, so you can capture photos or videos more securely. Furthermore, the built-in voice recorders on most phones will continue to record audio even when locked, so if anything goes down, you’ll want to make sure you have room to record everything you can. You can even consider one of the ACLU’s video recording apps that allows you to capture footage even when your phone is locked, and footage is uploaded directly to the cloud so you won’t lose anything even if your phone gets damaged.

At this point, it’s abundantly clear that the public at large can’t trust the cops, so it’s important for anyone taking part in a protest to do everything they can to protect themselves and their loved ones.

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Looking for ways to advocate for black lives? Check out this list of resources by our sister site Lifehacker for ways to get involved.

Senior reporter at Gizmodo, formerly Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag. Was an archery instructor and a penguin trainer before that.

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DISCUSSION

Tebow Kneeled First

Please be safe. Do not bring weapons. Do bring water. And a first aid kit. Help your neighbors. Remember that most of the cops out there right now are trying to keep the peace and protect the city. Don’t give the bad ones an excuse.