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How To Use Your Smartphone To Protect And Uphold Your Civil Rights

Guy McDowell 04-06-2013

civil rights movement apps
“Why do you push us around?” She remembered him saying, “I don’t know, but the law’s the law, and you’re under arrest.” Rosa Parks Interview, Academy of Achievement, 2 June 1995, accessed 29 May 2013. Can you imagine how much quicker the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s would have come to a head if they had the power that we hold in our pocket? Some would say that the Civil Rights Movement is still going on, and The Arab Spring shows us that it is. Here’s how you can document the challenge and make a difference with just a smartphone, some courage, and compassion.


Once again, I’m jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire with an article filled with legal situations. Folks, I am not a lawyer. I don’t think anyone at is a lawyer or anything even close. So, please, check with your local, state, provincial, and federal laws before implementing any of these methods of using your smartphone to protect your civil liberties. If you happen to know a lawyer who practices civil liberties or constitutional law, talk to them about these methods. For the purposes of this article, I am, unfortunately, focusing on the police being the alleged infringers upon your civil liberties. It really could be anyone – a neighbour, teacher, employer…anyone who infringes on your fundamental human rights. Chances are you’ll never have any issues with the police, and more often than not, they’ll prove to be defenders of your rights.

That being said, you may be wondering what gives me the authority to write an article like this. Let’s say that civil liberties are a hobby of mine. I’ve been spending the better part of my life learning how to live an independent life and keeping government out of my personal business. I have worked in security as well as the military, so I’ve been on the government side of the equation as well. I’ll give you what I know from personal experience and from what the research shows on this topic. Just like my article, I obviously can’t go through the laws for all the countries of our readers so I will keep it to Canadian and US law as best as I can. Canadian law will be somewhat similar to the law through the British Commonwealth countries.

1. Put Your Lawyer’s Phone Number in Your Contacts

This is by far the most important thing to do to protect your civil liberties. Time and time again, no matter what kind of peace officer I speak to, they all say the same thing. “If you don’t want to get yourself in trouble, don’t say anything but, “I want to call my lawyer!”.”  If you are a minor, then you should be saying, “I want to call my parents.” If you have your lawyer and/or your parents in your contacts list, make sure it’s obvious that their information shows that they are a lawyer or your parents. Or, if luck would have it, maybe they’re both your parent and your lawyer.

If you have any doubt whatsoever that you should say anything but, “I want my lawyer.”, or “I want my parents.”, watch these videos. Yes, they are long but they are dead on correct.

In this video, Prof. James Duane, a law professor and former defense attorney in the U.S.A., lays out all the reasons why you should not tell police anything if you are arrested. It’s lengthy, sometimes academic, but definitely enlightening.


In the Part Two of the video, Officer George Bruch of the Virginia Beach Police Department quickly replies, “Everything he said was true.” I bet you were thinking that he might refute Prof. Duane’s argument, point-by-point, telling you it’s best to tell the police everything you can. Confession is good for the soul, not so good for the criminal record. Officer Bruch actually explains how he can take what you said and use it against you in court. In fact, the Miranda Warning is often said using the phrase,”…anything you say can AND WILL be used against you in a court of law.” (Author’s emphasis.)

The types of things that are discussed in these videos also ring true in Canada, and I would imagine any other country where there is a legal right to silence and to not incriminate yourself. Sometimes low-tech is the best tech, and it doesn’t get anymore low-tech than just zipping your lip.

2. Record Your Situation

This is a difficult one to advise people to do, in light of so many cases recently where people have been arrested and convicted for filming police officers. Gemma Atkinson, of the United Kingdom, filmed the police questioning of her boyfriend in the Underground, in a ‘routine stop and search’. First off, there should be nothing routine about stop-and-search. Police unlawfully detained her, arrested her, and prosecuted her. With the aid of a lawyer, she sued the government and the police officers. Gemma won her court battle and the wording of the anti-terrorism act that the police arrested her under was clarified for police. With the proceeds from winning her civil suite against the police officers, she made a mini-documentary to help educate you, the public. I recommend you watch it if you are in the U.K.

In the United States, several people have been arrested in recent years under similar terrorist reasoning, for taking pictures or video of police and other peace officers. If you want to find out if it is legal to record police, a good place to start is the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of The Press, State by State Recording Guide


In Canada, according to David T.S. Fraser, a Canadian privacy lawyer, “There is no law in Canada that prevents a member of the public from taking photographs or video in a public place (other than some limitations related to sensitive defense installations).”

Now that you are forewarned, and forearmed, how could you record police actions? Some suggestions include using a video streaming service, like one of the ones featured in How To Stream Live Video From Your Smartphone How To Stream Live Video From Your Smartphone Whenever I mention to people that I am obsessed with streaming video apps, I almost always get the same response - why would you want to stream real-time video from your phone? What about your... Read More  or Qik Qik: Streaming Video From Your Cell Phone To Others Read More , so that the video that you record is automatically going to a server somewhere. With these services, the video stream could be accessed as it is happening, and the stream is saved so it can be viewed later. I tried out Bambuser and I really like it! Below, you can see the screen as if someone were watching the video live. It even shows that I’m recording in Canada.

civil rights movement apps

And here’s the actual video:


Some privacy advocates recommend that to wherever you are streaming your video, that it not be publicly available, or at least not publicly available until after you can speak with your lawyer. This may prevent police from getting an order to take the video down. The ability to make the video public is, in my opinion, very important.

Tools for recording voice-only might also be of assistance. I prefer using Easy Voice Recorder, since it has one-button operation, but there are many other excellent free voice-recorder apps available. You might like MP3 InCall Recorder MP3 InCall Recorder: Record Your Voice & Incoming Calls In High Quality MP3 Format [Android] Read More , if you’re getting harassing phone calls.

There are apps that make your smartphone function like a spy camera. What that means is that when you are recording, there are no outward signs that the phone is recording. In most situations, using a spy camera to film the police or others can put you on legally shaky ground. In my opinion, this is the last resort for recording ongoing civil rights violations. If this is the avenue that you choose to go, check out the article, Secretly Take Pictures On Your Android or iPhone Without Being Seen Secretly Take Pictures on Your Android or iPhone Without Being Seen If you want to take photos without being seen, you need these tips and apps. Read More .

You may not get justice from the police or from the courts, but if you can stream that video to the public, the hue and cry may go up, forcing the courts to re-evaluate their decision. Media, we are the media.


3. Use the Security the Phone Gives You

Every smartphone out there has at least one way to lock the phone. Whether it be by a pass code, swipe pattern, or facial recognition, there is a way to lock up your phone. Generally, you don’t have to tell the police what the pass code is, or enter it for them. Nor are you obligated to delete photos or videos.

civil rights app

In this case, I don’t recommend the facial recognition. If the police should gain physical control of your phone, they may be able to unlock it by just pointing it at you. Wouldn’t it be nice if this self-locking function existed on DSLRs and video cameras?

You may also choose to encrypt your device and your external SD card, if you have one. You can even lock your SIM card, making it harder for them to extract information without your consent.

civil rights movement apps

The Take Away

If you have any doubt that videotaping anyone infringing your civil rights could help, I suggest you look back on the story of Mido Macia. He was a South African man who was arrested and then dragged until dead behind a police van. Someone managed to record the situation and, because of that, 8 police officers are now charged with murder. One could make the argument that the investigation and the arrest would have never happened, if it weren’t for the video going out to the public. If you want to see the video – I don’t recommend it as it is just too graphic – you can see it on The Mirror’s article, by Steve White, Eight Cops on Murder Charges After Shocking Video of Taxi Driver Being Dragged to His Death.

It is important to note that the police are an important part of keeping our society livable, even enjoyable. They are your neighbours, maybe even your friends. Understand that, when you start to record them. Understand that cops have bad days too. Think of how annoying it would be to have someone walk into your office and randomly record you. Be nice, even if you have to be firm. Be respectful of all of the people involved. Making these kinds of videos isn’t a lark or a gag and only should be done when you see a serious breach of civil rights. Your rights and the power to protect them are in your hands. Don’t abuse it.

Have you had to use your smartphone to help protect your rights? If so, how? Did it help or hinder the process? Do you know of any other ways you could use your smartphone to protect your civil liberties? Let’s congregate peacefully in the comments section. Together we stand, divided we’re a bunch of people just standing around.

Image Credit: Word Cloud Stop Violence via Shutterstock

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  1. Trevor
    June 4, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    "Some would say that the Civil Rights Movement is still going on, and The Arab Spring
    shows us that it is..."
    It's sad to learn that one could attempt such a comparison... Civil Rights Movement has expanded democracy as a result, while The Arab Spring result was backwards, bringing radical islamists to power. The key difference here is that the society should be ready for democracy.

    • Guy McDowell
      June 4, 2013 at 7:37 pm

      I don't think the Arab Spring is exactly over yet. I'm also not so sure that democracy is as great as many would make it out to be.

      The argument could be made that the Civil Rights Movement has gone backwards as well, with the disproportionate amount of non-white males in U.S. prisons.

      I suppose those are matters for debate, not so much for technology. Technology is simply the tool, policy is the way in which the tool is applied.

      • Trevor
        June 4, 2013 at 8:59 pm

        The disproportionate amount of non-white males in U.S. prisons has nothing to do with the Civil Rights Movement. It has not gone backwards: as a result of it, people of color gained their rights.
        I agree these are matters for political debate, not for technology. So, why not sticking to the main topic of this site and not venturing into areas that require different expertise?

  2. Onaje Asheber
    June 4, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Good info!!!

  3. macwitty
    June 4, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    Do not carry around all information, encrypted or not. Do not carry around all contact information to other people in you community. Back up - phones have "got lost" when people got arrested

    • Guy McDowell
      June 4, 2013 at 7:39 pm

      In a really oppressive regime, I would agree with you. Or if you happen to be a part of a radical faction. But this isn't so much SERE training as it is CYA training.

      • macwitty
        June 5, 2013 at 5:58 am

        maybe you are right, Germany, Sweden and other European countries might have "really oppressive regime" At least we know that phones got lost when people was arrested during demonstrations in this countries and there are some evidences that phones have been taped

        • Guy McDowell
          June 5, 2013 at 11:01 am

          The phone could disappear, yet if they were using the live streaming video services the evidence wouldn't be lost.

          I do realize that if the government wants to, they're going to do whatever they want anyway. Sometimes it takes that iteration of protest and sacrifice for many years to make the change.