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Want to participate in a protest? You may want to do this with your tech before you go

Jennifer Jolly, Special to USA TODAY

I have covered more than 100 protests in my tenure as a general assignment news reporter, before turning my focus to tech. Most were peaceful, but I’ve been caught in the midst of the melee, too – pelted with rocks, tear-gassed, and attacked by extremists co-opting nonviolent marches to create chaos nonrelated to the cause.

What I learned early on, long before the days of smartphones and social media, is that keeping track of what’s going on – even along the same city block – can be next to impossible. Just gathering information, law enforcement would often tell me one thing, the protest organizers another, and dozens more leaders, marchers, and watchdog groups would say something totally different. Each new hour was often a tangled mess of conflicting information and I felt like – at the end of the day – the only truth I knew for certain, was what I had seen with my own two eyes.

Yet even those accounts fell woefully short to tell a fully representative story of what happens during a tense, emotionally charged demonstration. 

Using tech to stay safe and informed

The fact every single one of us now has a video camera and connection to one another by way of that smartphone in our pockets – helps. But it could also hurt, too. Facial recognition is now a key investigative tool for police departments across the United States, with nearly every major city and many smaller towns searching for a person’s identity with nothing more than a picture of their face, according to the ACLU and Electronic Freedom Foundation

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Want to blur a face in your video: These video and photo editing tools can help

If you want to join a protest and stay out of harm’s way – remember we’re still in the middle of a pandemic – there are several ways tech can help. 

On that whole pandemic note though, don’t forget to wear a mask, try to practice social distancing, bring hand sanitizer, and be mindful that we are indeed still dealing with the coronavirus. A new study released this week shows face masks may reduce COVID-19 spread by as much as 85%, so don’t leave home without one. 

Screengrab of the Protest2020 tool.

Find a march and local resources

Remember that teen in Washington who launched an early COVID-19 tracking database and site? Now he and his team (all under the age of 18) have built a website to track protests in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., called 2020Protests. When you open the site, click on your state, city, or town to see the most recent gathering locations, or spot the next general area where an event’s planned. 

The site is a work in progress, but it’s a great start getting a lot of local information in one click. One of the young women working on the project, Cameron Quijada, told me over the phone that they're working to provide directions to protests, additional resources to stay safe while demonstrating, information on curfews, whether the state has requested the national guard and how to donate to bail funds, activist organizations, and black-owned businesses. 

Screenshot of Citizen App

The other app everyone’s using is called Citizen (iOS, Android), which we first covered back in 2017. This week, App Annie showed Citizen as the fourth most downloaded iOS app of any kind.

The hybrid police scanner + social-media-for-crime app has its share of pros and cons, which are the same today as they were in our original story, but it’s become a good place to keep track of protests – or of any potential fallout from the protests happening near you. I’ve used it every night this week to find out about curfews and street closures, and to see out if loud booms late at night near my home were gunfire, fireworks, or “flashbang” stun grenades that law enforcement uses to break up crowds. (It’s been all three.)  

The app opens to your neighborhood and lets you zoom in or out to locate colored squares showing clusters of activity. Citizen uses high-powered scanners to track first responders’ public radio channels, then digitizes and transcribes the audio, using an algorithm to pick out keywords and turn them into incidents on the map. People also edit the site to keep what's listed accurate and relevant. You can also add your own videos, comments, and emoji reactions to any incident. Citizen’s guidelines try to keep comments civil, with a slew of rules against hate speech, harassment, and incitement, but it’s still there. Misinformation is an issue too, so use the app with caution. 

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Other resources to find protests near you  

Twitter: Search "George Floyd protests (your location) today" or "anti-police brutality protests (your location) today." Replace "today" with "tomorrow" or "this week" for further information and click the “Near you” tab under Search filters. 

Facebook’s Event tab: There are different ways to access the Events tab on your Facebook page. The quickest way that I’ve found to do it is by starting at my Home page, clicking Events on the left side of the page, under Explore. After that, type in key terms such as "protest" or "march," and make sure the location is set to the area closest to you. 

One word of caution here too, misinformation has run amok across social media. Take a moment to read Jessica Guynn’s article on how to protect yourself from hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and other potentially dangerous posts. 

Turning off Location Services in iOS

Take your phone, but do this first

There’s conflicting advice on whether to even bring your smartphone to a protest, but when I joined a peaceful, student-led march this past week with my husband and 19-year-old daughter, I wanted my phone nearby to record video, audio, and as a way to keep track of my loved ones. 

You could buy a burner phone, or keep your phone in airplane mode which still lets you shoot video on the fly, and try a few of these suggestions as well. 

Use a secure messaging app

  • iMessage uses end-to-end encryption by default, but only when you’re talking to other iPhone users. Try a third-party messaging app like Signal. It’s a secure, end-to-end encrypted messaging service that offers the option to delete messages after you’ve sent them. You can also set messages to expire after a certain amount of time. This way, there's little trace of your previous conversations in the app. Signal also just launched a new tool to automatically blur-out faces on any photos you send within its app. 
  • Other apps like Wickr and Wire offer similar features, just make sure everyone you need to contact uses the same app. Facebook’s WhatsApp also uses end-to-end encryption, the fact it’s linked to Facebook is a nonstarter for some people.
  • An app called Briar can even function offline using the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth radios on your device. 

Remove location data

Privacy experts say it’s always best to assume someone, somewhere tracks your every move, that you’re under constant surveillance, and to act accordingly. But your phone could also get lost or stolen, or law enforcement might take it away. To lock it down, use a secure six-digit or longer passcode, and log out of any apps you don’t need. You can also turn off your Wi-Fi radio, disable Bluetooth, and disable location services through your Settings.  

Jennifer's husband at a peaceful protest in Oakland, California this week. This is the "after" shot, using Image Scrubber to blur his face.

Blur faces, remove metadata

Several activists ask that people blur their faces and remove other potentially identifying data from photos and videos, for fear of retaliation. The easiest way to do that is with a new software tool called Image Scrubber. As the site states, “It will remove identifying metadata (Exif data) from photographs, and also allow you to selectively blur parts of the image to cover faces and other identifiable information.” Exif data can include the location of where a photo was taken, and even the model of the device used. 

Using the Image Scrubber tool to remove metadata from the image.

The way it works is simple; open the app, upload a photo, click  “Scrub Exif Data” at the bottom of the screen, then save the image. A tool to blur out parts of the photo automatically pops up next. Click or drag it across parts you want to blur, save again, and you’re done. 

You can also use YouTube, Adobe, and other editing software and tools as well, which USA TODAY’s Coral Murphy shows you here

Removing location data in your phone settings is easy on an iPhone, but can be more complicated depending on which Android device you use. 

  • On iOS: Go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services and toggle off. When Location Services are off, apps can't use your location in the foreground or background. This will limit the performance of various Apple and third-party apps. 
  • On Android: It’s more complicated depending on your make and model. For instance, on a Samsung Galaxy, go to Gallery App > Swipe up on an image to reveal its details > tap "Edit," and remove the location.

Don’t count on having cell service

The reality is that cell service can be spotty at best in large crowds. Many wireless companies’ 4G networks are already operating close to capacity, and smartphone terrestrial antennas easily get overwhelmed. I experienced this with a sudden drop to one, or no, bars during the protest I attended. 

Make arrangements in advance with your friends to meet at specific places at specific times if you get separated from each other. 

You may want to use code "signals" with people you trust. One example includes sending a single emoji that means "we have to go, meet me at the place we planned." That’s faster than typing all that information out.

Know your rights

Before you head out to any protest, know that in the United States, it is within your rights to demonstrate in public. That includes the basic act of assembling and protesting action by the government, according to the ACLU, which also notes that it protects the right to take video, or otherwise document what’s happening in a public space. But the First Amendment to the Constitution does not protect protesters against any unlawful activity they might commit, which includes destroying property or assaulting other people.

Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech contributor. Email her at jj@techish.com. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferJolly.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Planning to protest? Some tech tips before hitting the streets