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Feb 2, 17

YOUR PHONE IS A COP 2: Getting Arrested with Your Phone

In “YOUR PHONE IS A COP,” we laid out the case for not bringing your phone to a direct action. In the sequel, we’re going to cover several variations on a theme: You brought your phone, things got real and you’ve been arrested. What should you do before, during and after?

The temptation to ignore the maxim of LEAVE YOUR PHONE AT HOME takes many forms. From high-minded desires to document a moment of resistance to genuine concerns for safety, all the way down to the vain and the craven; the “why” is irrelevant. Take a trip with us, dear reader, because you’re in the kettle with a phone in your pocket and you’re about to be taken into police custody.


Once you’ve been kettled, you have minutes to hours before you’re arrested. This is priceless time you need to use wisely. In addition to stripping your outer layer of clothes and all of the other standard operating procedures, dealing with your phone should be high on your list of priorities. If you’re a rando hitting the streets in solidarity, a factory reset and removing your SIM is more than sufficient.

But what if you’re not just a sympathetic individual with good politics? Well, things aren’t necessarily more complicated but they are more urgent and you’re going to need to be more thorough.

If you’ve been involved in the organization or planning of the action you’re about to be arrested for participating in, you need to immediately get to work wiping/factory resetting your phone (a trivial operation, look it up), removing any SIM or SD cards contained within, and rendering the SD and SIM cards inert. How? Use your imagination. Or don’t and just chew them up and spit them out somewhere. They’re primarily made of plastic, you’ll be fine. Next, take your phone in your hands and try to fold it in half (so the speaker and the bottom mic touch). These things are remarkably fragile, it will break. Bend it back to something resembling straight, keep an eye on it to make sure that the battery isn’t going full Galaxy Note 7 on you, and place it back in your pocket. Your phone must have broken spontaneously during the march. Handing over a broken phone not only frustrates data recovery efforts, it also wastes the time of technicians forced to work on the damaged device.


Assuming you did everything above, just sit tight! Your pocket cop isn’t likely to be an issue, even after it’s recovered and placed into evidence.

But what if you were arrested without warning or failed to sanitize your device before your arrest?

If you were taken into custody with a fully intact phone, the scale of your fuck up really depends on how well you configured your phone initially and what you had on it. If this was just a personal phone full of personal pictures and hooks into fairly pedestrian social media accounts, you’ve lucked out. While The State is likely to comb your device for evidence they can use against you to extract compliance or a plea, they’ve been left with slim pickings. Even if your device was wide open and powered on when it was seized, you’re probably going to be OK. Learn your lesson and LEAVE IT AT HOME next time. This is where your “choose your own adventure” of infosec folly ends. Thanks for showing up and we’ll see you in the streets!

If you had “compromising information” on your phone or you were an operational asset to the action that just landed you in the clink, the scope of your fuck up is quite a bit worse. You need to take for granted that anything you were using to defend your device, short of a long password and full device encryption, can be bypassed. You were probably running much of the planning and coordination out of a combination of Gmail, SMS, and maybe a few secure platforms like Signal. Signal requires a lot of additional configuration [Editor’s note: in the Signal app, you can set passwords and timers] to be truly secure. You were signed into Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, and a whole host of other social networking applications. You may have taken pictures during the action that are packed with data in the images themselves and in the metadata stored in the image files (geotags, timestamps). Any data that ties you, the individual, to a place and time undermines the whole point of dressing identically and flooding the streets en mass.

You probably won’t get to know the complete scope of how this is going to affect you or your organization. Any information on your phone is going to make it harder for you to beat whatever charges get thrown your way, and depending on the content, could mean the same for anyone else you were in contact with during the action.


It’s been 36-48 hours and, hopefully, you’ve been charged and released on bail. Your phone is being held as evidence. Where do you go from here?

As tempting as it may be for the more savvy among you to attempt to remote wipe your device, resist this urge. That will definitely get you a “destruction of evidence” charge. Instead, you need to do the following:

  1. Change all of your passwords, for every service that may have touched that device. Cancel the line of service on the phone. Set up a throwaway email.
  2. For any social media accounts associated with the device, change the primary email address to the throwaway address in addition to the password.
  3. Expire any active sessions for social media accounts associated with the device (this is getting into dicey territory and we’re not lawyers, so tread lightly. If you have contacts with your local nominally leftist law practice, this would be a good thing to consult with them about).
  4. Once those accounts are relatively secure again, abandon them. They should be considered compromised.
  5. PLACE YOURSELF IN QUARANTINE. You need to be upfront with everyone about what has transpired and you need to encourage them to block those old accounts completely. This should be done discreetly and ideally in person.

Finally, you should very, very seriously consider stepping back from organizing while things shake out. Depending on the level of compromising data on your phone, The State may have significant leverage over you and it will apply that leverage ruthlessly. Your cause will survive your retirement and so will you. Place your energy elsewhere. There is plenty of whitehat work that needs to be done.

Never forget that these devices are configured by default to be tools for The State and its interests.

Hopefully, this exercise in speculative fiction has helped reinforce our point: LEAVE YOUR PHONE AT HOME.

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