Dissenting in disguise: A guide to anonymous protesting

June 04, 2020 / Current Affairs / By OPTF

The right to peaceful protest is a cornerstone of democracies the world over. But with governments growing ever more trigger-happy when it comes to quashing protest, it’s more important than ever to know how to organise and participate in protests safely. And while protests are often all about being seen and getting your message across, staying safe while protesting might sometimes involve taking measures to stay anonymous before, during, and after the protest — especially if the climate is particularly volatile. And with technology playing an ever-greater role in organising and holding protests — and in surveilling them — learning how to keep yourself anonymous at every stage of the protest process may be an unfortunate necessity. 

This guide gives you an overview of some of the threats you’ll need to consider, and some strategies to mitigate them. Remember, though, your exact privacy and anonymity needs may vary, and you’ll want to make sure you consider the specific risk profile presented by your unique situation when making decisions about how best to protect your privacy. It can be tricky to balance staying safe with amplifying your message and making your point, but in these turbulent times, it can be an important balance to strike.

Protesting anonymously: A crash course

It’s difficult — sometimes impossible — to stay completely anonymous while protesting. But there are certain measures you can take to keep your identity as safe as possible while exercising your right to peaceful protest. Here are a few things you can do at the different stages of protest: preparation, demonstration, and aftermath.

Anonymous protest preparation: Be prepared

Planning to go to a protest? You’ll probably want to read up on the protest — and the issues being protested. Make sure to use a VPN (or, even better, a privacy-preserving browser like the Tor Browser) to conduct your research without leaving a trail of digital footprints. Whichever method you choose, avoid using your normal everyday browser; tracking cookies and other digital breadcrumbs could give away your intentions. Download a new browser — something like Brave, with its built-in tracking prevention, is ideal.

Organising a protest? Make sure you set yourself up with a secure communications platform to protect yourself and your fellow protestors. Making protest arrangements using an app like Signal or Session is a good start — both Signal and Session secure your comms with end-to-end encryption, but Session has an anonymity edge because you can create a Session ID without giving up your phone number. Whatever you do, avoid using outdated, insecure channels like SMS or email, and try to avoid relying on deanonymised platforms like Facebook or Instagram — any platform that demands your real name or contact info is a potential exposure risk. If your real identity is linked to your protest prep on a social media platform, authorities could subpoena the platform operator for that information — not great if you’re aiming for anonymity.

Even before COVID-19, it was sometimes a good idea to wear a mask to a protest — but now, it’s essential. When you’re purchasing masks and other kit to wear to a protest, try to avoid using a credit card or other traceable payment method, so there’s no way to trace the items back to you. Buy your gear from different places at different times, so authorities can’t easily identify you as “that person who bought all that protest gear”. To further help with this, stick to cash or other less-traceable alternatives, like an anonymous cryptocurrency — credit cards are an indelible link between your real ID and your protest preparation.

Anonymous protest attendance: Be seen — but not ID’d

Almost every protest is captured by surveillance cameras and TV broadcasts, and in some cases, authorities may be explicitly filming and photographing protestors for identification purposes. Covering your face is a good start if you need to stay anonymous  — though you should already be doing so for COVID-19 mitigation reasons.

Be conscious of how you move through the protest; gait analysis tools are in ever-increasing use by law enforcement, and if you expose your gait to surveillance cameras, identification is very possible. Also, remember that cameras elsewhere in the city may capture your face before you mask up — be conscious of when and where you get changed and cover up.

Your mobile device(s) may also be sending out location information that could be logged and used to track you — and it’s possible that other methods, including some apps intended for COVID-19 contact tracing, could be used to track you as well. We recommend either putting your phone and other devices in airplane mode well before you get to the protest or, better still, not carrying devices at all. If you do need to carry your phone, make sure it’s locked down and encrypted with a PIN — it’s best to disable biometric access, as there have been cases of authorities forcing people to biometrically unlock their phones. While forcing someone to biometrically unlock their device is technically illegal in some countries, it’s best not to take the chance. 

Finally, avoid posting on social media during the protest if you want to stay anonymous. If you do want to take some photos, use an app like ObscuraCam (if you’re on Android) to strip metadata and optionally redact faces in photos you take. To be extra-careful, however, we recommend using a dedicated camera without WiFi or Bluetooth capabilities, to minimise risk of exposure. 

Anonymous protest aftermath: Keeping your guard up

If you want to check out news coverage of the protest after the fact, make sure you do so securely, using one of the private browsing solutions mentioned above (a VPN, or better, the Tor Browser) to see what people are saying about the protest. This is a pretty extreme measure, but if you’re serious about staying anonymous, avoiding any possible association between yourself and the protest is a must — and that includes not seeming too interested in news coverage. 

If you did take photos at the protest, make sure those photos are stored safely and securely. This way, if your home is ever raided by authorities or your device is stolen, the photos are protected. The best way to do this is to encrypt the files with a tool like Veracrypt or Cryptomator, then delete the original unencrypted files, or — if you’re being extra-careful — destroy the storage device used to capture them to protect against ‘undelete’/file retrieval software being used to restore the files.

Protesting in the 21st century

With today’s 24-hour news cycle and the rapid spread of ideas via the internet, the stakes for protesting have never been higher — and governments have never been more invested in quashing protests. Maintaining anonymity can be a good way to protest while minimising the risk of retribution against yourself or your family from governments or other entities. If you’re planning to protest, be prepared, be smart, and above all, stay safe.

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