Friday Tech Tip: Keep the Cops off Your Phone
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Friday Tech Tip: Keep the Cops off Your Phone

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Imagine what would happen if cops got hold of your phone and were able to read anything on it: your text messages, emails, Facebook messages and even your Signal conversations. Every security precaution you’ve taken up to that point becomes pointless: good passwords, two-factor authentication and secure messaging don’t matter if your device is physically in someone else’s hands.

If you’re in the streets against police terror, evictions, deportations, environmental destruction or any kind of injustice, or if you live in an occupied neighborhood or are otherwise harassed by police: this guide will help you turn on a special mode on your phone to keep them out of it.

Passwords vs Biometrics

At the heart of this issue is the convenience of biometrics: It’s really convenient to be able to unlock your phone with the press of your thumb on a button, or by just having it look at your face.

Unfortunately, this becomes a weapon against you. Courts are still split across the country on whether police can force you to unlock your phone with your face or fingerprint. On the other hand, it’s commonly acknowledged precedent that under the 5th Amendment you cannot be forced to unlock your phone (or computer) by physically typing a password.

iPhones

Starting with iOS 11 (released in 2017), Apple included what they call “Emergency SOS” mode. By triggering this feature, your phone immediately requires your password to unlock it.

In a later update, iOS 11.4.1, they added “USB Restricted Mode.” When your phone hasn’t been unlocked for an hour, or when you enter Emergency SOS mode, the Lightning port on the bottom of the phone can only be used for charging. Even if the phone is plugged into a computer, it won’t do anything except charge.

This important feature helps protect against GreyKey devices. Cops use those to make a copy of and try to break the password on your phone.

Setting Up Emergency SOS

Emergency Mode is on by default, but you’ll want to check some settings.

Open your Settings app and scroll to Emergency SOS. Make sure that “Call with Side Button” is On, and that Auto Call is Off. Otherwise, when you trigger Emergency Mode, it will automatically call 911 after a few seconds. This probably isn’t what you want!

Emergency SOS settings on the iPhone. Call with Side Button is On. Auto-Call is Off.

Open your Settings app and scroll to Emergency SOS. Make sure that “Call with Side Button” is On, and that Auto Call is Off. Otherwise, when you trigger Emergency Mode, it will automatically call 911 after a few seconds. This probably isn’t what you want!

Triggering Emergency SOS

Now you’re in the streets and the cops are approaching.

You can either press the power button 5 times, or hold down the Volume Up and Power buttons down for a few seconds. Your phone will go directly into Emergency SOS mode and require a passcode before unlocking.

Emergency SOS mode has two other benefits: First, the camera button on the lock screen still works so you can record cops; second any notifications that come in will just show the name of the app: they won’t show any details about the messages themselves!

Android Phones

As with many things on Android, this gets a little trickier. Various versions of the Android operating system have different ways of turning on a similar mode, and some manufacturers don’t include it at all.

Screenshot of an Android phone's Lock screen display settings. Show lockdown option is checked.

Android P (also known as Pie) was introduced in 2018 and includes this feature under the name “lockdown mode.” To enable it, Open the Settings app, go to Security & location, then Lock Screen Preferences. Turn on Show lockdown option.

In Android 10 (or Android Q), it might be under Settings, then Display, then Lock screen display.

Unfortunately, Android’s lockdown mode isn’t as convenient as Emergency SOS. To enable it, hold down the power button. When you see the slider come out, tap the Lockdown button. Now your Android phone will require a typed password to unlock!