IF YOU’RE MARCHING or protesting today, or any day, you may take photos or videos. Maybe some light livestreaming. So long as you’re in public places and aren’t breaking any other laws, that is your legally protected right in the US. But just as smartphones are increasingly able to broadcast events and promote transparency, law enforcement technology has evolved to take advantage. FBI and state facial recognition databases now include information about almost half of all US adults, and this technology can be (and has been) deployed to monitor protesters.
Law enforcement departments around the country have been using broad social media surveillance more and more as a way to track trends and identify people of interest. A study released in November by the Brennan Center for Justice showed that law enforcement has spent roughly $4.75 million on social media analysis technology tools that can, among other things, target large events, protesters, and activists.
So how can citizens reconcile the value of documentation with the fear that they might wind up in a database somewhere? Experts say that the most important thing is to keep expressing yourself, and simply take privacy into consideration where you can.
Protect Yourself (And Others)
“From the point of view of an individual, if you’re going to post something online you should do so under the assumption that it might be viewed by law enforcement,” says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU. “I think that the solution is A, etiquette, and B, better restraints and checks on law enforcement so the American people don’t have to feel chilled in exercising their rights.”
Etiquette comes into play because it’s not just your own face that you might snap a picture of. Double check your Facebook privacy settings to make sure you’re not broadcasting to the world, or if you prefer to remain public, remember that law enforcement could find your images and videos. Simple precautions like photographing a protest from behind, to reduce the number of faces, can be effective ways to grab a compelling crowd shot without compromising the privacy of strangers. Similarly, you can try to keep strangers’ faces out of photos of your friends when possible.
Civil rights advocates hope to push for norms and legislation that limit the ability to randomly and broadly surveil people’s online profiles. “The explosion of social media has led to much more of our lives being visible to other people, and that requires us to rethink both laws and etiquettes,” says Adam Schwartz, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Precisely because so much of our lives are on the internet, and it’s so much easier for police if they wanted to to see what we’re up to, that’s all the more reason that we ought to have hard and forceful rules that the police just are not looking at what we’re doing on social media without individualized suspicion of crime.”
Those rules may not be fast coming. Mere minutes after Friday’s inauguration, the Trump administration vowed on the White House website to “empower our law enforcement officers to do their jobs,” presumably a nod to Trump’s longstanding commitment to loosening restrictions and regulations on what police can and cannot do.
Protect Your Phone
There’s also the matter of the device you depend on to engage with social media—and so many other things—in the first place: your smartphone.
Your smartphone can reveal essentially your entire digital life, so part of protecting your privacy while protesting is making sure that data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. Should an altercation with police take place, they could seize your phone and may have cause to search it. Leaving it at home and packing only a standalone camera, or bringing a burner phone, are two ways to ensure that the device you have on you isn’t tied to your online identity.
If you do bring your everyday device, encrypting it with a passcode, using the camera while the phone is still locked, and using end-to-end encrypted messaging services are all ways to protect yourself from proactive government surveillance at marches and rallies. And make sure you have a backup of the data on the device. That way if you want to ditch it, you won’t lose everything.
Taking these precautions can be a pain, but being careful shouldn’t keep you from speaking out and publicizing what you want to share with the world. When you go to put an event photo on Instagram, take a second to think about the reach of that platform and who is in the image. And then post it.