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So You and Your Phone Will Be in Downtown Manhattan Today ...

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, October 5 2011

Today, hundreds, possibly thousands, of people will converge in the lower Manhattan for a march on the financial capital of the world, urging dramatic changes — for now, any changes — to the status quo. And many of them will do it while, in their pocket, they carry a device that is simultaneously an extension of their memory, a connection to the Internet, and a record of most of their recent contacts with their closest friends and colleagues.

The march is billed as both peaceful and permitted by the New York Police Department, but anytime thousands of civilians come face to face with police, there's no telling what might happen.

If you were around for the recent earthquake in the Northeast, you may remember that SMS text messages are more likely to get from source to destination than phone calls in a situation where there's a lot of cell traffic.

But there's a lot more to this story. What police can and can't do when they gain possession of someone's mobile phone — and what they are or are not allowed to do under the law — are hotly contested. Similarly, having your phone confiscated at a protest could have more repercussions for your friends, family and fellow travelers than it might have ten years ago.

So protesters are reaching out to experts in mobile technology who advise or build tools for activists, and asking them for advice. Here's what those experts are saying — a look behind the scenes at the ongoing conflict between activists and police over privacy, public safety and civil rights:

Katrin Verclas, CEO of MobileActive:

"Leave the fancy phones home"

  • Phones are subject to search and seizure (and might get damaged, accidentally or on purpose, in any case).
  • Leave as little data on the phone as possible: disable all autosync with email, etc., in case the phone is taken.
  • Use, if possible, disposable phones/pre-pay numbers.
  • Major carriers' networks may be at capacity, so have other smaller carrier phones if the networks are overwhelmed.
  • Apps like Bluetooth Chat allow for message transfer between phones connected via Bluetooth when carrier networks aren't available.

Nathan Freitas of The Guardian Project:

"I really hope anyone who plans, expects, or thinks they might be arrested today, wipes their phones first."

  • "... something we have seen at other large
    multi-day protests like RNC 2008, is that when activists are detained,
    their phones are taken and the IMEI (hardware ID) and IMSI (sim card) is
    logged, allowing tracking of call logs and cell tower locations without
    a warrant. It is common for NYPD to do this now, just like they take
    your fingerprints, etc, even with mundane arrests."
  • "The other very real threat when detained, is the use of a Cellebrite
    UFED device, which basically mass copies all the memory of a phone,
    including address books, call logs, sms, etc. I am sure the NYPD has
    many of these readily available."
  • "The InTheClear app we developed ... allows you to quickly erase
    data on your phone and send an emergency SMS, the so-called "Panic
    Button" built for activists abroad, but that also has relevance here:
    https://lab.safermobile.org/wiki/InTheClear"

During, and even before, the Arab Spring, experts also compiled online guides for mobile activists. If you want to get a better sense of what activists believe police are doing abroad — and what they're doing in response — then check these out. There's also a guide specifically for Occupy Wall Street. Here they are:

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