OPSEC for Activists, Part 1: The Basics

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When attending a protest, there are a lot of things to keep in mind. Your experiences during a demonstration may vary based on a lot of different factors. It is generally best practice to prepare as though you may be arrested, even if the risk factor seems very low.

Some things you may want to consider include:

  1. Lock your cell phone.
    A 2014 Supreme Court Ruling states that police must obtain a warrant before searching your cell phone. While it is possible that officers may act in defiance of this order, securing your phone with a PIN, passphrase, or fingerprint can help ensure that they do not violate this ruling without your knowledge.There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these three methods of securing your device:Fingerprints: provide very quick access, and cannot be shoulder-surfed; however, if a warrant is obtained for the search of your device, you can be legally compelled to unlock it.
    PIN: provides quick access, is easy to remember, and may be covered under your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination even if a warrant is obtained; however, a 4-digit PIN can be easy to guess/crack, and may also be easy to shoulder-surf.
    Passphrase: may be covered under your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination even if a warrant is obtained, and is more difficult to guess, crack, or shoulder-surf; however, a strong passphrase may be difficult to enter if you need to access your phone quickly, and strong passphrases may also be more difficult to remember.
    Any of these three options is a good choice, and all three are preferable to leaving your phone unlocked. Choose the solution that works best for you, and don’t worry too much about its imperfections.
  2. Encrypt your text messages.
    There are a variety of options at your disposal. Signal, Wickr, and even iMessage all provide reasonably secure messaging. The encryption all three provide means the plaintext content of your messages isn’t able to be captured by IMSI catchers (aka “Stingrays”) that law enforcement agencies set up to monitor protester communications.With Signal specifically, this protection extends to your phone calls as well as your text messages.As an added security measure, Signal for Android allows you to password-protect access to your text messages, and Wickr allows password protection on both the Android and iPhone platforms. The benefit of this password protection is that if you are using a fingerprint lock for your phone, law enforcement will still be legally unable to compel you to grant access to any password-protected databases, as passwords are protected under the Fifth Amendment.
  3. Check your pockets.
    Make sure you check your pockets before you head out. Be mindful of anything you may be carrying that could be construed as a weapon, and try not to bring anything you cannot bear to lose.Additionally, if you take any prescription medications, make sure to bring them with you in their original packaging. It is best to only bring a 3 day supply or so, and to leave the rest at home, in the event that you are somehow separated from your possessions and cannot get them back immediately (or at all.)
  4. Bring a mask.
    While it’s entirely possible you will have no need for it, bringing a bandanna or other face-covering can help in many ways. Wearing a mask is unlikely to protect your identity in any real and meaningful ways if you are seen doing something illegal, but it may help protect you from passive recognition by local law enforcement officers, thus shielding you from being singled out for future harassment based on your political ideologies.Additionally, wearing a mask can help keep you from being spotted by employers watching news coverage of events, or to avoid being the poster child for unsavory headlines. Photos of your face may be available long after the protest, or even the movement is over, so it is important to consider how being associated may impact you several years down the line.
  5. Choose your clothing carefully.
    Distinctive clothing can make you easy to pick out of a crowd, easy to place at the scene of a crime (even if it is not a crime you have committed,) and easy to target for police repression. While “black bloc anarchists” are frequently demonized as “violent” and “criminal,” the fact remains that black bloc is actually a tactic, not a faction, and its roots lie in protecting individuals from being targeted for repression during or after a demonstration, by cloaking everyone in a shroud of homogeneity.It is, of course, still possible to use biometrics such as height, weight, facial structure, and gait analysis to identify people in a crowd, but unremarkable attire can still help your chances significantly. It is particularly wise to avoid wearing bright colors, and also a good idea to abstain from wearing jewelry. If you have brightly-colored hair and/or tattoos, it may also be a good idea to cover these.If you are anticipating exposure to chemical agents like tear gas or pepper spray, it is important to know that while synthetic fabrics will not absorb these chemicals, and may provide a good barrier between them and your skin, they may also melt if they come into contact with something hot.Additionally, make sure whatever you’re wearing is easy to move around in (specifically in the event that you need to make a quick escape), and wear comfortable shoes.
  6. Prepare your emergency contacts.
    Find out whether there is a legal hotline that operates in your area. In many areas where such hotlines do exist, it is sometimes possible that they may not be staffed for all demonstrations, but it is always wise to write the phone number for the hotline in sharpie on your arm, as many unstaffed hotlines will also find emergency staffing in the event of arrests being made. Additionally, it is a good idea to check in with a couple trusted individuals who will not be at the demonstration; write their numbers on your arm as well, talk to them beforehand about any relevant information that you might want a legal hotline to know (prescriptions you need, whether or not you want public support, whether or not you want to be bailed out, who, if anyone, you’d like to have called, etc.)As part of this procedure, it’s also a good idea to set a check-in time with any individuals you are designating as emergency contacts; this is for a number of reasons. For one, it is always possible that you may get only one phone call in the event of arrest. It’s generally best to use this call to contact a legal hotline, but often there is a time lapse of several hours between being taken into custody, and being given your phone call. In the mean time, your emergency contacts can assume that your failure to check in means that you are unable to do so, and can start calling into the hotline, or calling people who need to be informed of your arrest (maybe you need a co-worker to cover a shift, maybe you need to let your housemates know you won’t be able to take your laundry out of the dryer or feed your dog, maybe you need your partner or neighbor to pick your child up from school.)Remember, also, that phone calls made from jail are monitored, so be mindful of what you are saying, and make sure your contact knows not to say anything that could be used against you as well. It may also be a good idea to come up with a duress phrase, to be used in the event of extreme emergency if you’ve told your contacts you do not want to be bailed out, but circumstances you may not wish to discuss over the phone have changed that.
  7. Keep your mouth shut.It is important to remember that you are under no obligation to answer questions posed by law enforcement officers. If you are being taken into custody, you may be required to show identification and give fingerprints, but there is no need to answer questions prying for information beyond that given by whichever form of identification you choose to use. Officers in the United States will often ask questions conversationally without first reading you your Miranda Rights, but you are under no obligation to answer them, and should refrain from doing so.Law enforcement officers are well-trained in asking questions conversationally, so you don’t necessarily realize they are pumping you for information, and any information you reveal, even in response to a seemingly innocuous question, can be used to hurt you. Specifically state that you would like to invoke your right to remain silent, ask to speak to an attorney, and say nothing else, no matter how harmless you think it may be.
  8. Consider repression tactics.
    Several of the dispersal tactics used by various law enforcement agencies may influence the choices you make prior to attending a demonstration. If police in your area use chemical agents like tear gas or pepper spray, you should refrain from wearing any oil-based makeup or contact lenses. If law enforcement uses less-lethal projectiles, you may wish to wear thicker clothing to help pad against rubber bullets and beanbag rounds. You may also want to consider bringing a gas mask and/or helmet along with you.
  9. Never travel alone.
    When going to a protest, always bring a buddy along to watch your back. Buddies should help keep each other safe from being flanked by law enforcement, being taken into custody without anyone knowing, or generally getting left behind. Having someone to watch your back can make a huge difference in how safe you are at a protest.Additionally, never depart from a protest alone; at minimum, travel using the buddy system, and whenever possible, travel in larger groups. Post-demonstration snatch-and-grab arrests by law enforcement are frequent occurrences, and traveling in a group means that at very least, there are witnesses if you are targeted.With special thanks to The Grugq for reviewing this guide.

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Elle Armageddon

Elle Armageddon is a Bay Area-born anarchist, antifascist, blogger, glitter enthusiast, and smartass security professional. In addition to writing, furiously tweeting, and mucking around with a chemistry set that looks suspiciously like a bar, you can also find them providing medical and legal support for protesters, babysitting their niblings, and politely asking people to stop doing unconscionable things to the computers. If you'd like to support their writing, you may do so at https://patreon.com/armageddon They can also be found on Twitter: @ElleArmageddon

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