Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch gave some counter-surveillance advice ahead of #BlackLivesMatterUK protests. Here’s what she said:
“The shocking reality is that we’ve now found ourselves in an environment of global mass surveillance on an absolutely extreme level where everything that we do is tracked and recorded somewhere.
“For many of us, that doesn’t affect us in our day-to-day lives, but for people who are at risk – political activists, dissidents, migrants, or so many other groups who don’t have political safety, especially those who try to challenge governments – this seriously endangers the possibilities of effective organising.
“[Don’t click attending on Facebook, it’s a] double-edged sword. You don’t need to publicly register that this is something you’re going to.
“[Police] are not [filming] for no reason, but relatively little is known about precisely what’s done with that data. When they used to do this ten years ago, they used to be called FITs – Forward Intelligence Teams – which were basically police officers who walked around with a camera on a stick. They would then make ‘spotter cards’ of people, and look for key organisers. Sometimes they’ll keep knowledge of you committing a minor offence, and when they want to prevent you from going to or organising another event, they’ll arrest you months down the line. This is creepy and wrong.
“[Police body cams are] not very regulated, so sometimes what we see is police just turning them on as they walk around, which basically turns them into walking CCTV cameras.
“[Look for facial recognition vans]. If they’re using the technology, it will be a van – either unmarked or with ‘facial recognition’ on it – with a camera on top. We haven’t seen them using it since the pandemic, and it would be an outrage if they used it for a protest.
“If you’re a key organiser who’s trying to evade police surveillance, then you should certainly think about taking extra measures. Phone tracking is certainly a very real possibility [at protests]. This is something that happens on a mass-scale in the UK everyday anyway. Sometimes police – this is all neither confirmed nor denied, but the evidence is overwhelming – have covert devices that act as fake cell towers. They can be used to block or intercept phone signals, and, in extremes, can be used to hack phones.
“[Use Signal instead of WhatsApp]. If there’s a group of 10 who you’re talking to all the time in the lead up to a civil disobedience, that (data can be discovered by the police and will tell them) much more than the content of the conversations.
“If you’re using facial recognition (and have your phone seized), the police may not even ask for your PIN because all they need to do is hold it up to your face. Same with fingerprint entry as well – it’s easier to defend yourself when a PIN is involved, both in terms of legal rights and practically, than it is with biometrics.
“[Burner phones are worse than smartphones]. Burner phones can easily be subject to extra surveillance because of mass pattern analysis. If there’s a cell of burner phones, it stands out like a sore thumb. Also the police can see if a handset is being passed around lots of different SIM cards.
“Distinct clothing feeds into video analytics. If you’re wearing a yellow hoodie, for example, the police can use software to pick out the person wearing the yellow hoodie, even from hours of footage.
“Do you upload [photos]? That’s a decision people should weigh up. And then: who’s in the photo? Have they given permission? Obviously there’s a merit to documenting important events that are happening, and it’s impossible to get permission from everyone in a public place, but it’s a case of being sensible about it and not putting other people unduly at risk.” (We recommend Skitch to pixelate photos.)