Tradecraft: Phone Security 101

Washington, DC (TFC) – The first thing I notice about many activists and protesters is their total lack of digital security. Most of us carry around a computer in our pocket that allows us to do amazing things, from recording high definition videos and taking photos to accessing the most amazing collection of data the human race has ever amassed. Yet despite the capabilities of this amazing device, few actually understand what this device is capable of. This will be a basic guide written for the average user, and as such it will gloss over many things, and drastically over-simplify the technical aspects of many others for the sake of simplicity.

Every time that you use a computer of any kind, certain security precautions must be taken in order to ensure your personal safety from both those who would steal your data and the State which may wish to either claim that you have violated one or more of their illegitimate rules, or else simply frame you for such. Basic security measures are inexpensive, often free, and easy enough for even those less technical users.

The first recommendation is always to fully encrypt your device. As the recent FBI vs. Apple court case showed, even this simple step is enough to put a thorn in the side of a huge State agency with practically limitless resources. Encryption is a way to make the data useless without the correct passphrase. While recent iPhones (anything after the iPhone 3GS) are encrypted by default, Android devices are not.

However, this is a very simple process, and step-by-step guides for every device available are easily accessed through a simple online search. Most devices running a recent version of the Android Operating System can be encrypted by going to Settings > More (tab) > Security. Make sure your phone is fully charged before attempting this, as it may take a while. If given the option, always choose to fully encrypt any external memory you have in your phone.

Many people love the option of using a fingerprint to decrypt their phone and consider it to be highly secure, however, please take into account the courts have ruled that you have a right against self-incrimination that is enumerated under the fifth amendment against giving up your passphrase in order to decrypt your phone, while you have no right against giving up your finger print. If arrested for any activism, it is highly likely that your mobile device will be seized, and unless you wish the actors of the State to have access to everything on it, (think of photos and videos of persons committing civil disobedience, personal photos or data, access to your social media, etc.) then this is something you may wish to take into account. Also, it is impossible for State agents to plant “suicide notes,” or evidence on something they cannot access. Just having a passcode on your phone does not mean it cannot be accessed, it must be encrypted!

Cell phones. "Chargepod 2" by Mmckinley - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain

Cell phones.
“Chargepod 2” by Mmckinley – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain

The second recommendation is for a good antivirus program. You may call this a cell phone, but it is not. It is a mobile computer with phone capabilities. If you cannot afford a paid program, then there are some that are available for free, of which I recommend BitDefender. However, I personally only use Kaspersky Internet Security for my Android. I have found it to be among the best available with a feature set that is particularly useful for those involved in activism, including the ability to remotely lock the phone, and even remotely wipe the phone of data. Here I must make a legal disclaimer, in all jurisdictions I am aware of, it is illegal to tamper with evidence, and wiping data from a phone could be taken as such if the State agents wish to make a case against you, so use such features at your own discretion. Personally, I like having this option available. Remember that not all people who would seek to exploit your information are employees of the State.

Further security precautions would include turning off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth when you are not actively using them. These features provide others with a way to access your phone that you do not want.

For those who wish to use the internet anonymously from their mobile device and prevent others from being able to electronically gather their passphrases used over the internet when browsing over an unsecure Wi-Fi hotspot then a Virtual Private Network(VPN) is a must have. Paid VPN services are cheap, fast, and easy to use. Arguably the best available is “Private Internet Access.” It can be bought anonymously over the internet and downloaded to a total of five devices. This service provides a secure connection from your device, be it a mobile device or home personal computer to one of over thirty of their servers world-wide. Your data cannot be read until it reaches their end server and is decrypted there. This not only prevents people from being able to intercept your data over Wi-Fi but can also be used to mask your true location. The encryption protocols offered by the company Private Internet Access are the best available, and considered as of yet to be unbreakable. The free options available are much more difficult for a beginner, and tend to have far more restricted bandwidth (they are “slow”).