Skip to content

How to resist in a surveillance state

2014 January 21
by Ian Welsh

I want to highlight two items relating to surveillance of people who dare resist the status quo.  First, your cell phone:

The New York Timesreports that the Ukrainian government is using advanced surveillance technology to track protesters in the streets.

The Ukrainian government used telephone technology to pinpoint the locations of cellphones in use near clashes between riot police officers and protesters early on Tuesday, illustrating that techniques that can be used to target commercial information can serve law enforcement as well.

People near the fighting between riot police and protesters received a text message shortly after midnight saying “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.”

The phrasing echoed language in a new law making participation in a protest deemed violent a crime punishable by imprisonment. The law took effect on Tuesday.

The device used in Kiev is most likely what’s known as an ‘IMSI catcher‘, which tricks cell phones into thinking it is a cell phone tower. Any phone within a certain distance of the device will therefore send identifying information to it, allowing the operator to automatically compile a list of every person nearby with a cell phone. The systems can also capture web, phone, and text content from mobile devices, as well as automatically serve content like text messages to every phone within range. For that reason, advertisers and corporations increasingly use them to target people with location-specific pitches for products and services.

Back in 2012, a security researcher in the United Statestold an audience of hackers in New York that the NYPD routinely used IMSI catchers at the Occupy Wall Street protests, enabling the intelligence division to keep nearly perfect records of every person in attendance.

Second, corporate infiltration of NGOs and protest movements:

Another estimateof the prevalence of corporate espionage–but perhaps a self-serving one–comes from Russell Corn, managing director of Diligence, a corporate intelligence agency. Corn says that “private spies make up 25 per cent of every activist camp. ‘If you stuck an intercept up near one of those camps, you wouldn’t believe the amount of o
utgoing callsafter every meeting saying, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to cut the fence’,’ he smiles. ‘Easily onein four of the people there are taking the corporate shilling.’”

I doubt it’s one in 4, but I bet it’s high.

Here is the bloody rule: if you are involved in these activities you either don’t take a cell phone,  or you put it in a Faraday bag (I have just learned, joy, that taking the batteries out might not be enough, as there is a backup battery you don’t control, meant to avoid loss during battery changes and so on).  In addition to being a tracking device you take with you, it is also possible to use your phone as a bug, to listen in remotely. Laptops are also problematic if they have a camera, can connect to the internet, or have microphone.  At the least, keep them powered off.

The technological revolution did not happen unless you want everyone to know your business.  There are times when you do, but if you don’t, turn this stuff off.

Next: infiltration.  Assume that your movement is infiltrated.  Figure out how to identify the moles.  When you do, if you’re serious, you need to figure out a way to punish them so  that whoever sent them won’t, or can’t, send more. I leave how to do that to the reader to figure out.

Next, forget democratic decision making when it comes to specific tactical decisions.  One person should know what you’re going to do, and he or she should not tell ANYONE until just before it is to be done, and hopefully too late for effective counter-action.

Finally: assume surveillance.  Learn how to obscure your identity, and learn where the blind spots of the system are.  A lot of countries are making wearing masks during demonstrations illegal, but there are other ways. Again, I leave how to do this an exercise to the reader, but bear in mind, it doesn’t take much to screw up facial recognition, and gloves are still your friend, and not illegal.


If you enjoyed this article, and want me to write more, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

23 Responses
  1. adrena permalink
    January 21, 2014

    Instead of wearing a mask, use face paint to shield your identity (until that becomes illegal).

  2. Celsius 233 permalink
    January 21, 2014

    Taking out the battery won’t be enough. There is another internal battery so the phones settings aren’t lost during, say, a battery being changed.
    A Faraday cage is the only effective way to stop a phone from being tracked. Something as simple as an envelope made from a double layer of aluminum foil is effective. Just be certain there are no gaps when the envelope is sealed.
    Do not trust turning off the phone either; that is no guarantee of no signal.
    RFID chips embedded in drivers licenses, credit cards, passports, and other forms of ID should be likewise placed in a Faraday cage or left home (in a Faraday cage ;) .

  3. guest permalink
    January 22, 2014

    Next, forget democratic decision making when it comes to specific tactical decisions. One person should know what you’re going to do, and he or she should not tell ANYONE until just before it is to be done, and hopefully too late for effective counter-action.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    I don’t get this one. Is the “one person” who should know your plan yourself, or someone else? Why tell anyone at all if secrecy is so important? And if you are only going to tell one other person (or no one else) how the heck do you get any sort of group action going? Might as well go it alone.

    I guess this is one result of growing up in a large family with my closest sibling being a complete fuck up, and the rest mostly being run of the mill dumbass average people. I just see way too many opportunities for idiots to screw things up, do counterproductive things, blab the wrong things to the wrong people. My instinct would be always to get the fuck away from any group contemplating anything more daring than Occupy.

  4. January 22, 2014

    I’ve wondered about just being open about the fact that there are likely moles about and you’re probably being surveilled. Kind of a no worries, par for the course sort of attitude… Like, “hey, it’s totally cool if you’re a corporate or police agent.”

  5. Ian Welsh permalink*
    January 22, 2014

    Just let us know, so we can work you harder and soak your bosses for more donations!

  6. Celsius 233 permalink
    January 22, 2014

    “Just let us know, so we can work you harder and soak your bosses for more donations!” Ian
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Hardy har, har, har (The Life Of Riley). That’s just perfect and hilarious…

  7. someofparts permalink
    January 22, 2014

    I’d still like to know how to identify moles but it’s hardly a topic we could chat about online.

    Guess I can also relate to what guest said about his/her siblings if I think of my own social world. Hard to think of anything the folks around me couldn’t fuck up. Maybe there needs to be an informal rule that people surrounded by bozos should abstain from serious resistance. Although I suppose “organized” bozos could serve to draw official attention away from the genuinely effective folks.

  8. Celsius 233 permalink
    January 22, 2014

    someofparts
    January 22, 2014

    Huh?
    Hard to discern your post.
    Get your own head in order; the rest should be clear.
    Believe everyone; trust no one. Think about it…

  9. guest permalink
    January 22, 2014

    I’d still like to know how to identify moles but it’s hardly a topic we could chat about online.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    That’s very easy, if you read any of the accounts of the dummies who have gotten entrapped during various protests against G7 meetings and the like over the last 20 years.
    First of all, the moles are the first ones to propose violence or other illegal activities, especially when the leaders are explicitly nonviolent. Normally they will entrap the dimmest bulb and give him the choice of sitting in jail for the rest of his life, or else becoming a govt mole to help entrap even more people of even more serious crimes.

  10. January 22, 2014

    Well, it’s a start.

    Outwitting surveillance apparats has been an ongoing hobby and way of life for many millions living under totalitarian/colonialist-imperialist rule for generations, and they pretty much figured out the details of how to do it — with modifications depending on various surveillance/security systems.

    A two-pronged strategy seems to be widely favored: a) overwhelm the surveillance system with bogus “intelligence” for the apparat to pick up and worry over; b) maintain parallel and relatively impenetrable communications systems only open to trusted users.

    Using cell phones, the internet and open meetings for nearly all communications by Occupy made monitoring and infiltration by the security apparat a cinch. They took full advantage of it, too. There was no effort to outwit surveillance; instead, there was an open invitation to it.

    That was a strategic choice that now seems incredibly naive, but it was made for a reason.

    As for doing something illegal, whether wearing bandanas or masks or walking in the street rather than on the sidewalk, one should recognize that literally anything one does (or doesn’t) do is potentially “illegal” and if one is worried about that, one should probably stay home, with the shades drawn, so as not to be visible or noticed at all…

  11. someofparts permalink
    January 22, 2014

    Sorry if what I’m saying is unclear. Within my immediate neighborhood I see well-heeled liberals doing good deeds but otherwise pretty comfortable with existing conditions, under which they have done quite well personally. The community is also full of undercover officers. The liberals enjoy feeling like the good guys and the police see them as the people they are protecting, and not at all the folks that anyone needs to be protected from. It’s rude and needlessly mean of me to call them bozos. Yet, for all I know, they might very well be drawing attention away from others attempting serious organizing, and if that were the case I would consider it a good thing.

  12. Polaris permalink
    January 22, 2014

    That was a strategic choice that now seems incredibly naive,

    It seemed incredibly naive then, and I generally got the runaround when I tried to raise the issue. (The sole exception being a couple of low-level protesters–themselves longtime activists–that I met in person.) At The Confluence OTOH even the suggestion that OWS coordinate over Diaspora instead of Facebook was a bridge too far.

  13. Ian Welsh permalink*
    January 22, 2014

    The standard method is simple enough: give them tailored information only they have, see if their masters react.

  14. someofparts permalink
    January 22, 2014

    Thanks Ian. Makes sense. I tried that once with a fellow in the neighborhood I thought was a gossip. Worked like a charm. In fact, in later years, I would plant things with him when I wanted some bit of info spread around.

  15. someofparts permalink
    January 22, 2014

    Also – did you know you were be cited extensively at the Real Economics website?

    Here’s the link to the specific post – http://real-economics.blogspot.com/
    He starts talking about some of your posts halfway down under the heading
    “A new ideology – or a reborn ideology?” beginning in the second paragraph.

    To wit –

    “I want to bring to your attention the best effort along these lines I am aware of, initiated by Ian Welsh in October 2013. What Welsh is doing is largely restating and recasting the key tenets of classical republican theory.”

  16. Ian Welsh permalink*
    January 22, 2014

    Yes, I read that. I’m flattered, especially as I think Tony Wikrent’s a smart guy.

  17. Stormcrow permalink
    January 23, 2014

    Next: infiltration. Assume that your movement is infiltrated. Figure out how to identify the moles. When you do, if you’re serious, you need to figure out a way to punish them so that whoever sent them won’t, or can’t, send more. I leave how to do that to the reader to figure out.

    Not sure “punishing” a mole does much good. The logical next step for the security service is to send in others, whose identities you do not yet know. This replaces a known threat agent with an unknown threat agent, which doesn’t strike me as a good idea.

    Answering guest: You’re making the implicit assumption that a mole is there for one purpose and one purpose only: to incite counterproductive activities. You won’t detect a mole who’s in “record and report only” mode this way, because they’re keeping their mouths shut and their ears open per their instructions.

    In either case, if and when you have managed identification, containment makes more sense, if you can do this in a way the mole won’t detect. Then, per Ian, feed them tailored information, to deceive and misdirect their masters.

  18. January 23, 2014

    The problem with infiltrators is that it’s impossible to know for certain who-all is the infiltrator and who is simply not popular with the group at that moment. It leads directly to scapegoating and other forms of ostracism and often worse. Targeting the wrong people can destroy a movement as easily as agents, informants and provocateurs can.

    Some infiltrators are easy to spot — during Occupy, they would even announce themselves sometimes — but others are not, not by a long shot, and sometimes, especially in hierarchical orgs, the leaders themselves are the actual informants, moles or infiltrators. (The Weathermen were a classic example. Whether their leadership was actually working for the FBI or not, I don’t know, but there was plenty of speculation at the time, and it was not entirely uninformed speculation at that.)

    The explanation I heard for having nearly all of Occupy’s business conducted so openly as well as the rejection of hierarchy was to prevent that kind of thing from happening. The theory was that if (nearly) everything was happening in the open and there were no leaders or secrets, the movement could never be subverted by infiltrators or led by a cabal with its own nefarious agenda. In practice, it didn’t work out well. Subversion was commonplace and easy enough, infiltrators were practically everywhere, and agenda driven cabals were always trying to take over — and sometimes succeeded.

  19. January 23, 2014

    Agree with Ché Pasa that there are different kinds of infiltrators, not just agents provocateurs proposing violence (though the latter are dead giveaways). You just have to assume that you’re being watched. At the Occupation of Freedom Plaza in D.C., they were pretty obvious at the beginning. Very buff and military-looking, with close-cropped hair and pressed polo shirts and khakis. I mean, come on, guys.

    But obviously they don’t always look like that. And as time wore on, different infiltrators smarmed their way in.

    At demonstrations, I like to play “spot the spy.” It’s a pleasant diversion. I also go in front of their cameras with a big smile. And yeah, if you’re afraid of being identified, better just to stay home.

    The NYT, of all places, published a great graphic by an artist a few weeks ago showing how to alter your face in the most subtle ways to throw off facial recognition technology. If I can find the link, I’ll post it later. I do remember that he said sunglasses were worthless in this regard.

  20. January 23, 2014

    Well, I’ll be darned; I found it right away:

    Face to Anti-Face

    http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/12/14/opinion/sunday/20121215_ANTIFACE_OPART.html?_r=0

  21. Interactive Television permalink
    January 23, 2014

    Dreh dich nicht um, schau, schau,
    der Kommissar geht um!
    Er hat die Kraft und wir sind klein und dumm,
    dieser Frust macht uns Stumm.

  22. Jill permalink
    January 24, 2014

    I also agree with Che Pasa, especially about this point: “The problem with infiltrators is that it’s impossible to know for certain who-all is the infiltrator and who is simply not popular with the group at that moment. It leads directly to scapegoating and other forms of ostracism and often worse. Targeting the wrong people can destroy a movement as easily as agents, informants and provocateurs can.”

    I have thought about this for very long time and I believe we might as well be completely open with resistance. It is possible to openly change plans at the last minute. Spending time trying to weed out infiltrators can be its own disaster for reasons stated above. Spending time stopping people from being disruptive whether they are infiltrators or not makes sense.

    Being open does not mean bringing your tracking devices etc. with you or not bringing along ways of protecting oneself from being photographed or gassed (when possible). It just means, that stating one’s ideas openly and using open, non-violent resistance is, to my mind, the best way to go.

  23. January 25, 2014

    Being open does not mean bringing your tracking devices etc. with you or not bringing along ways of protecting oneself from being photographed or gassed (when possible). It just means, that stating one’s ideas openly and using open, non-violent resistance is, to my mind, the best way to go.

    Exactly.

    The danger of scapegoating reminds me of the movie “Stalag 17.” Have you all seen it? A classic.

Comments are closed.