Law enforcement agencies across the United States are ramping up surveillance of the protesters who have been forcefully demonstrating against police brutality and the deaths of Black people at the hands of the police. For those who intend to join the demonstrations, as well as those who are organizing, protecting digital privacy at a time when law enforcement is especially empowered to track your communications is crucial.
The safest strategy is to simply leave your smartphone at home. For protesters and organizers who need to stay in contact with each other for safety or logistical reasons, this may not be possible, in which case the second safest strategy is to purchase a drop phone or burner SIM card. These disposable, prepaid devices offer anonymity and security by providing you with a temporary, or otherwise unidentifiable phone number that would be difficult to trace back to you.
If you’re new to protesting and these options seem too extreme, there are a number of ways to protect yourself, including turning off your location services before heading out to protests, and downloading messaging apps that keep your conversations private and secure. The key is to look for end-to-end encryption, which just means that only you and the intended recipients of your messages can read what you send. Nobody in between, including third-parties like law enforcement, can read your messages if they’re end-to-end encrypted. To a third party that happens to intercept an end-to-end encrypted message, it just looks like scrambled nonsense. Not even the organizations and companies that offer these chat apps can read or access end-to-end encrypted messages and media. Here, find a list of options and a bit about how they work.
Signal, developed by Open Whisper Systems, is one of the best-known end-to-end encrypted chat applications, and for good reason. While you do need to register your phone number to create a Signal account, other information about you, like your name or profile picture, is end-to-end encrypted. Your messages and video calls are end-to-end encrypted, too. If needed, you can also set conversations to self-destruct.
For conversations that you want to keep, Signal does not store data about these messages, or so-called metadata, beyond the minimum amount of super technical information that the application needs to function. Signal has in the past been forced by the government to hand over data, but no identifiable information that could have potentially exposed users or their messages was produced because Signal simply does not store it.
Signal, which has come out in support of the protests, recently released a feature that automatically blurs faces in photos taken via the app. This is another way to protect the privacy of the protesters around you when you’re out demonstrating and want to share visuals.
The technology that powers Signal and its end-to-end encryption is open-source. This means that the code is available for everyone to see and inspect, which in turn means that it has been scoured for vulnerabilities far more extensively than chat apps that keep their technology private.
Signal is available for download for free on both iPhone and Android.
Viber, developed by the Japanese company Rakuten, end-to-end encrypts individual and group chats by default. Voice and video chats are also end-to-end encrypted. Chats can be made to self-destruct. While Viber implements similar encryption concepts as Signal, the code is private.
To create an account, you need to provide both your phone number and email. Viber stores this registration information and other account information that you may provide. Viber also stores a variety of information related to your activity on the app. This can include information related to your calls and messages, such as who called who, who messaged who, and at what time. This is so-called metadata.