Security Planning for Events: Tips and lessons from past actions

Cross-posted, with permission, from Susan Schorn’s blog

I’m fortunate to live in Austin, Texas, with a rich history of activism and ready access to elected officials. Since the election of November 2016, I’ve protested racists and Neo-NazisIslamophobiamisogynytax fraudracism, and climate change denial; I’ve helped with safety on marchesrallies, lobbying events, and townhalls; I’ve used tactical non-violence skills on campuses, at City Hall, the state Capitol, and the offices of Congressmen. I’ve learned a lot about crowd management, dealing with DPS troopers, and how to use a walkie-talkie. I’ve also learned a great deal about my own strengths and weaknesses in the high-energy, sometimes high-conflict setting of civic activism. I’ve learned that anyone can do this work, but it’s a lot easier if we pool our knowledge. So here, in no specific order, are some tips for others interested in, or already doing, work to keep civic protest as safe and free of violence as possible.

Planning:

If you agree to be the “security person” for an event, connect early and often with the lead organizers. Questions to ask:

  • Is this a march or rally or both? (a planned march may have to become a rally if march permits can’t be secured). You’ll need to plan a little differently for static versus moving phases of an event.
  • If it’s a march, what is the route? Will streets be blocked, and will there be a police escort?
  • Do we have approval from city or other authorities as needed? Verify that venue reservation and permitting processes are on track and will be complete well in advance of the event.
  • Is there any codified information about use of the venue? Ask especially for documents that say, “You cannot block these areas. Pedicabs can’t go here. Buses should avoid these streets. Pedestrians must stay out of these areas.” Etc. Maps of any areas with special restrictions are awesome. If the venue doesn’t provide one, you can sketch one out and ask their people if you have the restricted zones accurately marked.
  • Basically, any time anyone tells you, “You CANNOT . . .” or “You MUST . . . ,” try to get that statement in writing (email is fine).
  • If we are protesting without permits, how do we expect authorities to react?
  • Which agencies (law enforcement, venue, and other) will we be interacting with, and who is the contact person/info for each? For each contact person, know that person’s position in the chain of command for their agency. Know how agencies work together. At the Texas State Capitol, for example, many decisions are made by the State Preservation Board representative. They may ask DPS Troopers to remove people or stop behaviors they deem inappropriate, whereas direct requests from event organizers to DPS for such actions are usually ignored.
  • Do we have legal observers lined up (ACLU, Lawyers Guild, other)? Is there a number for people to call if they are arrested?
  • Have the expectations for non-violence been made plain to all participants? (MoveOn, for example, typically includes a statement about this on their event RSVP pages.)
  • How will event volunteers be identified (armbands, ribbons, hats, shirts)? I like to give the safety team their own armband or bandana in a special color so they can identify each other and so others can locate them when needed.
  • Who is the first aid team? Where will they be located?
  • Who is bringing water? Where will it be available?
  • Do we have a communications system for security? (If your group doesn’t have walkie-talkies, consider buying a set. They are relatively inexpensive on Amazon. Or, connect with other groups to co-purchase or share communications equipment)
  • If using walkie-talkies, have we clarified with other security personnel at the event which channels are clear to use?
  • Do we expect counter-protest or disruption? Who is tracking this? Who is communicating with law enforcement about it?
  • Is this a strictly local event, or is it connected to a national effort?
  • How is fundraising being handled, and what will funds be used for (most often, it’s for permits, renting port-a-potties, and first aid supplies/water)?
  • What is the “run of show”? Usually the list of speakers for an event will be sketchy until just beforehand, but organizers should have a schedule laid out indicating when the crowd will assemble, who will serve as MC, how long is anticipated for music, pledge/anthem, speakers, etc.
  • Amplification: what is the policy or law, who will enforce it?

Procuring and training safety volunteers:

I only handle event security if the lead organizers provide a list of volunteers who are committed to show up in advance for training and stay for the duration of the event. It’s fine if you can call in some people you already know and have worked with, but organizers should treat security as an integral part of their event, not something that can be outsourced. Every attendee at the event will ultimately be responsible for helping to keep the event safe.

Virtually anyone who is mature enough to act responsibly under pressure can be an effective peacekeeper at an action, but people should have some basic training in emotional grounding and other simple tactics. Diversity in your volunteer pool is a strength; adults of all ages, genders, sizes, strengths, and abilities can be effective peacekeepers and de-escalators.

The Protest Safety Training Handbook contains a complete short workshop plan for training volunteers.

I also provide a day-of handout for volunteers. I ask them to meet early at the event site, so we can explain the plan for the day and review skills. I provide the same handout to law enforcement, before and at the event, so they have some understanding of what our volunteers will be doing (I have been detained and lectured by law enforcement for de-escalating attendees at a rally who were yelling at a counter-protester–the officer interpreted our intervention as “interfering with his [the counter-protester’s] First Amendment rights”). Here’s a sample day-of handout.

At the event:

Have a plan for deploying your volunteers. You might want some volunteers in static positions (stationed at every intersection on a march route, for example) and some mingling with the crowd. In a large space, I’ll often set up zones and assign people to cover specific areas. You want volunteers to be present throughout your event space, but you also need them to be free to move to where the problems are. For a march, it often works well to have safety volunteers walk along the sides of the marching bloc, so they can intervene between marchers and bystanders should the bystanders prove hostile.

Handling disruptive counter-protesters will be covered in more detail in a subsequent post. Generally, however, friction develops at certain boundaries: near the edge of a stage area, or along the sides of a march as marchers draw the attention of people on the sidewalk.

I have my volunteers check in 30-60 minutes early, either at the main volunteer area or just with me, but I keep my own check-in list of names. This helps me introduce volunteers to one another. We have a brief orientation where we

  • Hand out walkie-talkies and bandanas
  • Assign people to their zones or areas
  • Go over the day of handout
  • Go through the “run of show”
  • Point out where first aid, water, and restrooms are
  • Go over any last-minute details on expected counter-protest, law enforcement communication, etc.
  • Review grounding and de-escalation skills
  • Establish a debriefing location where we will meet up after the event if there is any violence or other problems. Usually we do this in a nearby bar, and I buy everyone a beer. It allows us to talk over our experiences and also provides a safer way to disperse if there is any concern about being followed by hostile counter-protesters.

Finally, I encourage friendly, or at least respectful, interaction with law enforcement. Get to know specific LE officers and develop working relationships as is appropriate, but keep in mind LE often uses information gained informally to target innocent and vulnerable people. Don’t be too trusting. I’m also working on a more detailed post about interacting with law enforcement.

More resources:

There are tons of other good resources on protest organization out there; here are some I refer to often:

Know Your Rights: Free Speech, Protests & Demonstrations (ACLU)
Search and seizure (EFF)
How to use your smartphone in a protest
Tactical Nonviolence: philosophy & methods (Bruce Hartford)
Crowd psychology and safety
Activist’s Guide to Basic First Aid
Pepper Spray & Tear Gas: Avoiding, Protection, Remedies

As always, I welcome comments and feedback–please share your own tips and advice in the comments, or hit me up on Twitter (@SusanSchorn).

Training: Protest Safety & Verbal Self-Defense on May 3, 2017

On Wednesday, May 3, TX21 Indivisible is excited to host a session on protest safety and verbal assertiveness led by Susan Schorn. The workshop will take place from 6:45-8:45 p.m. at the Manchaca Road Branch library, 5500 Manchaca Rd., Austin TX 78745.
We’ll cover:
  • Grounding and emotional self-regulation techniques for public speaking/civic conflict situations
  • De-escalation and other group safety skills
  • Tactical nonviolence planning essentials
  • How to take control of a conversation (being rude for the right reasons)

Please wear comfortable clothing and be prepared to move around (all activities can also be done seated)!

This workshop is part of TX21’s monthly educational series and is free and non-partisan. All are welcome – tell your friends!

Susan “George” Schorn is a writer, martial artist, and self defense advocate. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and two children, and trains and teaches at Sun Dragon Martial Arts and Self Defense.

 

Five Easy Ways to Increase Your Digital Safety & Security TODAY

In a previous blog post, I created a list of a dozen or so things anyone could do to increase their online/digital security.

It’s time to revisit this topic, but this time with a bit more focus. A dozen security tasks seems like a lot, doesn’t it? Well, don’t worry, you can massively increase your own digital security/safety by doing just a few things, so I figured I would just concentrate on five items.

Here are the five that top my list:

  1. Create and use strong passwords for all online accounts and identities. Stop using your birthday, anniversary, dog’s name, and favorite teacher’s last name in your passwords. And stop reusing the same password (or slight variations on the same theme) on all your online accounts (Facebook, online banks, commerce, etc). Instead, use a password manager like 1Password or LastPass – these apps can create and store random, impossible-to-guess passwords. If you want to login somewhere, just have the software feed the username and password to the site, and you’re in. My goal is to never know another password – except for the one that opens up my password manager. That one I keep memorized!
  2. Enable two-factor authentication (2FA) or two-step verification (2SV) everywhere. When you log in to your bank or other important online accounts, you can opt to receive an alphanumeric code via text message. This simple expedient increases your security a lot – think about it: even if hackers do guess or steal your password, they won’t be able to get in without that second code. Getting a text confirmation is an example of 2SV, which is not the same as 2FA. 2FA is when you use your thumbprint, or a code from a secure token in your physical possession as the “second factor” in your login attempt (the “first factor” is your password). Either way, 2SV and 2FA makes it much harder for unauthorized people to get into your most important accounts.
  3. Protect all devices with passcodes, PINs, and passwords. Make sure that all smartphones, laptops, and other computing devices are protected by strong passwords, passcodes, and long PINs (at least 6 digits – and if your devices support alphanumeric PINs then by all means do that too!). That way, if your devices are lost, stolen, or subpoenaed, they won’t automatically be wide open to a stranger’s prying eyes/fingers.
  4. Keep your software and systems up to date. Hollywood movies would have us believe that hackers break into computers using really sophisticated software packages that bypass encryption and defeat firewalls. Not really. The majority of breaches occur because the bad guys detect a completely out-of-date version of an OS or software running on your phone or laptop. The out-of-date version has a well-known security problem, which they use to get into the system – and from there they start to take over that machine or device and then move on to other systems. Keeping your systems updated and patched can be a giant pain, but it’s an essential part of security hygiene.
  5. Be cautious about what you publish on social media. We’ve all gotten pretty used to sharing a lot about our lives: favorite books and movies, photos of family and friends, news about vacations and promotions, photos of social gatherings at favorite haunts. Unfortunately, every post of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other services helps to paint a portrait of your interests, routines, and social circle. Any and all of that can be used against you by someone who wants to gain your trust, or exploit your absence (think about all the homes broken into because people post vacation photos while they’re on vacation!). If you can’t lock your accounts or make them private, just be very aware that everything you post on social media is something you are telling the entire world.

Upcoming Protest Safety/Verbal Self Defense Training

On Saturday, March 18, we’re offering another session on protest safety and verbal assertiveness from 1:30-3:30 p.m. at the Northwest Family YMCA, 5807 McNeil Drive, Austin, TX 78729. Please RSVP here (note that this site only accommodates 25 people, so don’t wait to register). We’ll cover

  • Grounding and emotional self-regulation techniques for public speaking/civic conflict situations
  • De-escalation and other group safety skills
  • Tactical nonviolence planning essentials
  • How to take control of a conversation (being rude for the right reasons)

To help make this session as focused and practical as possible, you’ll be asked to answer a few questions after you register.

This meeting will be free and non-partisan. Tell your friends!

Increase Security Awareness: Honeypots

We live in interesting, complex times – and a lot of it is due to the internet. Its power and reach is immense. We use it to organize, to get our message out, and to build movements.

But there are plenty of bad actors out there who want to use the internet’s power against us. In pop culture, you always see the bad guys using really complex code to break into computer systems and databases. In reality, hackers and other bad guys use more straightforward attempts at trickery:

  • They’ll send phishing emails to trick you into changing your password on a site that looks exactly like your bank or email provider.
  • They’ll set up honeypots (i.e., decoys) to trick you into signing up for services that appear legitimate but are actually anything but.
  • There’s lots more besides – like seeding popular websites with malware (this is called a watering hole attack – think all the animals on the savannah going to a watering hole, not knowing a predator lurks nearby). If you visit popular porn sites, for example, beware! You’re likely getting hit with malware. So update your antivirus protection. And if you need information on this, tune in later.

Let’s take the second case here – honeypots. Far-right groups are now setting up websites and online petitions to trick antifa groups (that’s anti-fascist brigades, BTW) into divulging their personal information. This is part of a deliberate campaign being waged to help identify and unmask these people – mostly because antifa has been extremely effective at countering far-right activities.

 

At first glance, these fake online petitions and sites look totally legitimate, down to the URL, which might be something like antifascism.org cited above. Everything about the design, web copy, and stated goals is meant to trick antifa members. Once a member of antifa logs in and signs the petition (often by providing their name and email address) they’ve now set themselves up for doxxing by the groups running the petition.

What is doxxing? It’s the repugnant practice of publishing someone’s information on the internet with the stated goal of harassing them. In the past, doxxing victims have had vital information published: names, home/work addresses, phone numbers, and social security numbers.

In this particular case, the far-right / neo-nazi groups want to doxx antifa to make them personally vulnerable and less effective in their actions.

Okay, so what’s the remedy here?

  1. As always, be aware. Use caution and think twice before committing to any online activity. There’s no need to be so paranoid you don’t log into the internet at all, just be aware of what you’re doing and what’s happening around you.
  2. Specifically, use caution when divulging your contact information anywhere on the internet. Do you know the people setting up the service or petition? If not, do you really want to divulge your personal information?
  3. Consider the creation of a secondary identity to fill in these kinds of forms. Never use your work email/identity, and think twice before using your primary personal one.
  4. Consider the use of Tor browser – it anonymizes your traffic and makes it much harder to identify sites you visit and the activities you engage in on the internet.
  5. Coincidentally, we’ve just published an article on the many Meetups that have recently cropped up claiming to be Indivisible. Just so you know, the Central Texas meetups have not been organized by us – so use caution.

#Resist Meetups and Other Groups

Update: We heard from Meetup.com: they set up all of these groups. Part of their statement:

“#Resist is an extension of the Meetup platform designed to help members
easily find and host Meetup events with a civic engagement focus.”

We weren’t alone in our concerns that 1,000 groups springing up overnight was a Honeypot attempt by people wishing to undermine the Indivisible movement. If you are thinking of organizing from the top down, please be 100% transparent about it. We will assess Meetup’s new toolset. 

Update #2: Here is a link to the Meetup to Resist site.


Today we noticed nearly 1,000 groups pop up on Meetup.com that look a *lot* like Indivisible. The Austin and Central Texas-area Meetup groups are not affiliated with Indivisible Austin or our local district groups.

We know that many groups are excited about using the Indivisible Guide to plan their actions, which is amazing. In the Austin area, our groups are working closely with the guide’s authors, and with the national group.

This movement is mostly decentralized and leaderless, so anyone can start a group if they wish. Still, we encourage you to exercise caution when signing up for a new group. Check this website for information about our affiliations and partnerships (we link to the known district-based groups from the district webpages). It also helps if you know a group’s organizers personally. Ask for a meeting or phone call!

We’ll update this post as we learn more.

Protest Safety/Verbal Self Defense Training: UPDATE

For those of you who expressed interest in this training: We’ve scheduled a session from 1-3 p.m. on Saturday, February 25th, at the Manchaca Road Branch library at 5500 Manchaca. The room is fairly large, but to facilitate planning, please RSVP here!

This meeting will be free, non-partisan, and open to the public, as required by Austin Libraries. Tell your friends!

How to Customize Signal to Be More Like Slack (and vice-versa)

We posted recently about our concerns with using Slack for team communications.

Here’s the thing: A lot of us love Slack. It is life-changing software that makes team collaboration roughly 1.3 gazillion times easier. And if you’re a geek, the API integrations are heavenly. Slack is great…for work or to organize a neighborhood barbecue.

Slack (and nearly every other piece of cloud-based software) is not so great if you have any concerns about the privacy of your users or the security of your information. Which, as we head in into authoritarian rule, is a concern.

There are more secure Slack alternatives, like Semaphor, which we are exploring. But for now we’re using Signal, which is free and easy to use.

But… Signal is not Slack. It’s much simpler, more like a group-text app, with none of Slack’s bells and whistles or API integrations. So…

To make Signal be more Slack-y, here are some steps you can take:

  1. Disable notifications. Signal is exactly like SMS text messaging, which, if you’ve ever been part of a family group text around the holidays, you know can be annoying. The minute more than six people are in a Signal group, your phone’s buzzing will get out of hand.
  2. Keep groups small. Think of them like Slack channels. Not everyone needs to be in every channel. Also, unlike on Slack, Signal has no group moderation. In other words, you can’t boot people from a group. Another reason to keep groups small and manageable.
  3. Don’t be afraid to create new groups. Just like on Slack, where there’s a Fear of Creating Channels (FoCC), you don’t need to shoehorn conversations into existing groups just because the group was set up that way. Create a new group, even if you’re only going to use it for a day or two. There is no limit to the number of groups you can create.
  4. Use 1-1 communication whenever possible. Not everyone needs to know everything. Just like Slack, Signal is great for private, one-to-one conversations. And don’t forget to set messages to disappear!

Now, because you are probably going to use Slack despite what we recommend, here are some steps to make Slack more Signal-y. 

  1. Admins can set their teams to require two-factor authentication (2FA) for everyone on the team. This is the very first step you need to do when setting up your team. If you are logging into Slack without 2FA, do not participate on that Slack team and notify your admin immediately. This is very basic, Security 101 — but it’s a step toward making Slack more Signal-y.
  2. Set messages to disappear. This feature is configurable at the channel and individual level, and its important that you do this right now. Choose whatever time period makes sense (a day? a week?) for your needs. This is not 100% secure (your messages will still be stored in the cloud somewhere, and presumably available via hacking or subpoena), but at least if someone swipes your phone they can’t search your entire message history.

We’re still exploring these issues and would love your feedback. What security concerns do you have in Trump’s America? What precautions are you taking? Let us know in the comments, or… on Signal.

Why Slack Isn’t Such a Good Idea

Disclaimer: I can’t tell you what to do. I am not dictating a policy here, nor do I have the means to enforce one. This is a discussion of basic security concepts as they apply to Indivisible teams & data and how Slack measures up. It also includes some mitigations to take if you do decide to use Slack.

Anything I say below can be applied to any/all communication technologies and methods: social media, email, signal, slack, face-to-face communication. Please keep our member & leadership data safe in the Era of Trump.

There’s been a lot of talk about using Slack as a communication tool to help keep all of our fast-growing Indivisible teams coordinated and moving forward. Although it has a very shiny interface and is fun and easy to use, it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to security. In fact, lots of companies are leaping into the space to provide secure chat.

GROAN. YES! I can hear you groaning. “Oh, its the security guy, he’s always the party pooper.” Well guess what, I’m here to give you a few tidbits on security.

Focus on Security Essentials

Let’s think about what is most important to our cause:

  • Our member and leadership data. As in, anything that can personally identify them. Think to yourself, what happens if data about your members or leaders (names, emails, phone numbers, addresses) gets leaked or is hacked?Those people get PERSONALLY affected, is what happens. Think about that for a second. How effective will your teams be if they’re all doxxed? Or if just your leaders are doxxed? Or if people get fired because their Trump-loving boss figures out what they’re doing? Or if someone in a bright Red county loses all their business customers overnight because of a data breach? When you think about risk in this way, things come into sharp focus.
  • Our plans. Think how our adversary could mess with us if they knew what we were about to do. What if you’re planning to show up to a congressperson’s office and do all that planning in an open forum, and then the Congressperson decides to avoid you? And it’s because you talked about your plans on an open channel and all your efforts come to naught.
  • Our ability to coordinate and control effectively. Think about people with bad agendas inserting themselves into conversations. Impersonating users because they stole their passwords and assumed their identities or stolen their devices. Issuing commands to go one place across town when we were supposed be some other place. Or cancelling an event when in fact we were supposed to be there. In an era where Russians have likely hacked our elections, do you think any of this is far fetched? ARE YOU THINKING LIKE A SECURITY PERSON YET?

If you can secure these three aspects of our information security, you can go a long way toward keeping our members and initiatives safe across all of our Indivisible chapters.

The above should form the foundation of how you evaluate security on any platform: texting, email, Signal, Slack, whatever. If you can keep the three aspects of our operations secure, you know you’re on the right track.

So, think this through:

  1. You want your most sensitive data (member information, leadership data, plans) in your most guarded and secret places. That would be Signal for example.
  2. You want action messages and final plans to be on public spaces: blogs, social media, emails, mass texts.
  3. At all times you want to make sure that the person(s) you’re communicating with are actually, for real, the person(s) you intend to communicate with. And not someone who is impersonating them because they stole a password or cloned their phone number.

How Does Slack Rank Security-Wise?

Now that we have some basics down, let’s talk about Slack. It’s so SHINY and PRETTY. But you should know by now that pretty things aren’t necessarily good for you. Let’s see how it stacks up to our three criteria above.

  1. The encryption used on Slack is controlled by Slack. Which means no end-to-end encryption like on Signal. Which means that Slack admins can, according to their privacy rules and their own technical stack, look at your conversations. Even if they aren’t willing to do it, they can be subpoenaed to do so. So this means we can’t keep member/leadership data safe on Slack. Nor can we keep our plans safe on it.
  2. All conversations are kept on their servers. You don’t own those conversations. Slack has the data. In a centralized place. Where hackers can get into it. Which has happened. So, once again, our data is not safe on the platform.
  3. CAN I JUST ALL-CAPS REMIND YOU ALL THIS STUFF ON SLACK CAN BE SUBPOENAED? Okay, let’s see, let me give you an example. Hulk Hogan’s trial against Gawker, paid for by Peter Thiel, WHO IS ON TRUMP’S SIDE. Part of this involved Slack chat messages. Is it safe? Is it secure? NO GANDALF IT IS NOT.

Given all three things above, I’m personally never going to use Slack. There’s no end-to-end encryption, I don’t own the data (which hangs around forever and can be looked at by their admins) and it can all be subpoenaed.

I’m out.

You’re Totally Going to Use Slack, Aren’t You?

Here’s where the real world intrudes. As much as the security guy shouts from the rooftops about something, most people will do their own thing.

It’s okay, security people are used to being ignored until something horrible happens. At which point they can say, “I told you so!” while drinking numerous beers and catching up on favorite episodes of Firefly.

I can’t stop you from using Slack. I also can’t stop you from standing up in the middle of Main Street with a megaphone and telling anyone who cares to listen what our most secret plans are.

So you’re going to use Slack. Great! Here are some things to think about if you so choose to do this thing I’m begging you not to:

  1. Remember that Slack is an open channel. NEVER fully identify a member or leader on there. First names only. NEVER divulge emails or phone numbers. NEVER EVER EVER.
  2. Only use Slack to divulge last-minute coordination efforts, never for planning and discussion. Use Signal and face-to-face meetings for planning. Use Slack, social media,  and email to alert the necessary teams of final decisions.
  3. Turn on 2-factor authentication in Slack (this option was made available because they they were hacked, but okay they took a right step).
  4. Force everyone on your team to use 2-factor authentication. This way you’ll have some assurance you’re talking to the right person. Or at least, a real person. Try googling “how to not get catfished” if you want an entertaining evening.

Okay, that’s it. Go forth and do your thing. Remember to keep yourselves and other members of Indivisible safe!

Protest Safety & Verbal Self Defense Training

If you’re gearing up for one of the marches or other actions this month, here’s a good starter guide for Protest Safety (site includes links to more advanced info and a PDF version of the Basic info for printing/sharing).

We also want to offer some training and practice for engaging with our representatives at public events. If you’re interested in a 1-2 hour session that would cover some of the following, please leave a Comment on this post:

  • Grounding and emotional self-regulation techniques for public speaking/civic conflict situations
  • How to take control of the conversation (being rude for the right reasons)
  • Coordinating group action at an event
  • Tactical nonviolence planning essentials

If you have other concerns related to safe engagement, please note those below too, and we’ll try to address them!