Law in the Internet Society

Privacy and Protest in the Digital Age

-- By EdenEsemuede - 1 February 2024


Increased internet accessibility means that higher percentages of people are engaged in political protest than ever before. (Science Direct) The Internet is a powerful tool for protest coordination, especially in the United States. Online protest coordination should be simple. Google has a seemingly endless capacity for search results. Ever-evolving algorithms grow more impressive and sophisticated by the day. The increased access to people outside of one’s social circles provided by a website or an X account means that many like-minded people can coalesce around a cause, overcoming physical barriers to political participation. However, these very same coordinating devices are being used to incriminate people trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Furthermore, without adequate privacy knowledge for protest planners, a lack of security around these online forums subjects protestors to very real harm of interlopers and doxxing, with little opportunity for recourse through the justice system. (The Intercept)

With that in mind, I find it pertinent to discuss a history of protest, adding an understanding of how getting people together worked before we had the internet to do it for us. Then, I will discuss how modern conventions, such as the internet and cell phones, are used for tracking purposes. Finally, I will make an argument for a compromise that maximizes the accessibility of the Internet and the anonymity of private communication.

Part 1: Protest

Protest Then

Beginning the historical discussion, the process of gaining sympathy for a cause and protest was very different in the 60s than it is now. Back then, garnering nationwide attention for a cause started with traditional news media. Images of Jim Crow-related deaths and newspaper headlines about harmful policies shaped the public consciousness. When it came to getting people involved in a protest, Community leaders (Religious organizations, Grassroots activists, etc) would implore people in their circle to get up and get involved by posting flyers, fostering discussion during meetings, and getting official headcounts before the event. Their support was highly dependent on messaging, phrasing, and intersecting goals. Leaders of a protest like the March on Washington needed to agree on shared goals because each faction’s financial support could mean the difference between an entire sector of people on the ground, or counter-protesting.

Protest Now

In the modern age, protest organization works differently. An organizer for a small protest may post in a group chat of like-minded individuals. Larger protests may start with an Instagram page or website. However, the IP addresses of people who access sites like these can be found and potentially turned over to local and federal law enforcement. Evidence on how unsafe this information is is mixed. In 2017, the Department of Justice served a website with a search warrant, asking for the IP address of visitors after protesting Trump’s inauguration. Similarly, Customs and Border Protection ordered Twitter to hand over the phone number, mailing, and IP addresses associated with Trump dissenters @ALT_USCIS, which was only dropped after a lawsuit from Twitter. (Guardian) However, that leaves organizers at the mercy of the platform. With this in mind, organizers must consider different ways of getting information out to potential protest partners.

Concerns for the average, non-organizing protestor are different from that of organizers. Utica Police Department spokesman Lt. Bryan Coromato says that while social media makes it easy for police officers to see what will happen at a peaceful protest, the department isn’t “sitting around with certain people's names or certain group's names and observing their posts or their profiles on whatever social media sites just to see what they're doing.” (Govtech). However, they certainly can do so, considering their contracts with companies like Cellbrite, who can download all information stored in a phone, alongside contracts with companies like Gofeedia and Media Sonar, which extract private information from Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. (Cityrecord, nysfocus).


As expected, the legality of these actions is always in question. Adjudication around police in the protest sphere tends to focus on what they can access once someone is in custody. One can combat this by putting a 6+ digit passcode on your phone before you go to a protest, so police can’t force you to unlock it immediately, and wearing a mask with reflective sunglasses to avoid facial recognition software. While rules against self-incrimination exist for simply accessing the phone from your end, police seemingly have endless power to get search warrants for the information posted over the internet, whether from a website or a supposedly ”private” Facebook messenger chat. (Vice). Time and time again, the broad wish to survey protestor actions has passed the loose requirements of probable cause, and until new legislation passes to limit it, these searches will only get more invasive.

Compromise and Conclusion

With all of the dangers in mind, it might be tempting to suggest that we go back to the protesting methods of old. After all, if the March on Washington managed to get 250,000 people together without a single Instagram post, it could potentially happen again. However, the internet is only so dangerous for privacy because activists lack information on how to connect with one another in private.

Protest organizers should plan as little of their activity as possible in unencrypted forums. While a website may serve as a good digital flyer, more specific aspects of protests, such as planned speakers, planned attendees, series of events, and public disruption should always be kept private. Protestors, in turn, should protect themselves through the use of true VPNs and social media accounts not connected to their real-world personas. By doing so, individuals advocating for change can maximize both visibility and safety through the use of the internet. Until the law changes, this will have to be a protest organizer’s new norm.




Others: (Science Direct),and%20political%20structures%20of%20societies.

(The Intercept)

(March on Washington)






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r2 - 02 Feb 2024 - 00:51:52 - EdenEsemuede
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