How to Protect Protesters in Your Photos and Videos

Simple tools to obscure faces, and erase metadata

A photo of a protestor taking a video of spray painting on the CNN lego.
A protestor records people spray painting the CNN logo during a demonstration in Atlanta, Georgia, in response to the police custody murder of George Floyd, on May 29, 2020. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Stringer/Getty Images

More than ever, it seems, people are mindful of how sharing and disseminating images can lead to their identification and prosecution of protesters by law enforcement. In an increasing number of these photos, participants are being digitally anonymized, with their faces, shoes, and clothing logos all blurred out.

But blurring images or otherwise obscuring the subject of a photograph may not always be enough to avoid detection, particularly if a smartphone with the unedited photos is seized by law enforcement. Original images come with metadata that may contain timestamps and location information related to when and where the photo was taken. Such information could be used by police to link protesters to particular places at specific moments.

Software artist Everest Pipkin’s Image Scrubber is a free-to-use tool which enables users to quickly and effectively blur an image while also erasing key identifying metadata. Similar to Microsoft Paint, it’s intuitive to use: Users upload an image, use their brush-like cursor to select the parts they wish to obscure, and then download a clean, anonymized version.

Pipkin’s program erases metadata by taking a sort of screenshot of the original image. “This is what my program is doing. It loads the image into pixels in my code and then redraws the image out again,” they explain to OneZero over email. Their blurring tool is more complex, foregoing a simple algorithmic approach to instead edit the “pixels of the blurred region to induce random noise, pixelation, and aliasing.” They explain that a further “pixel noise is then blurred and composited on top of the photo.” Any attempt to reverse the tool’s blurring would still leave a scrambled image, all but useless to law enforcement.

Once you’ve stripped a photo’s metadata, consider blurring out or covering faces with black boxes. “You should black out or obscure every face, every identifying feature, unique clothing, unique hairstyles,” says Cooper Quentin, a senior staff technologist for the nonprofit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation. Quentin suggests using the default photo editing apps on iOS and Android, which enable users to draw over images. He also expressed concern about police seizing original images from the smartphones of protestors apprehended at events. He recommends that protesters disable fingerprint and face unlock features so that authorities cannot easily access phones without an individual’s explicit consent.

Videos present additional challenges. If uploading protest video to YouTube, software is available to help you blur out the identities of protesters. Witness, an international nonprofit organization that helps people use video and technology to protect human rights, has published a useful guide on YouTube’s free-to-use blurring tool which can’t be de-blurred by the police, according to Dia Kayyali, a tech and advocacy program manager for Witness. It might also be worth keeping a copy of the original video in a secure location, should it be required to defend a protester in a court of law. Comparable tools aren’t yet available for Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, but protesters can download their blurred videos from YouTube and subsequently upload them to other social media platforms.

Livestreams present their own problems precisely because they can’t be edited, and Kayyali cautions against uploading footage directly from a protest. Think twice before going live on Periscope, Instagram, or other platforms.

Despite rising awareness surrounding the need to conceal the identities of protesters, many images circulating have failed to do so. That’s a big problem says Kayyali. “I have no doubt that not only will footage be submitted by people who took it themselves, people will also find other videos and send them to the police or to the FBI,” Kayyali says.

It’s vital to consider what you’re actually filming or photographing in the first instance: Are you documenting the protesters themselves or police injustices?

Regardless of an image’s intended purpose, “it’s really important to think about people’s identities” explains Kayyali.

These tools are, Pipkin acknowledges, stop-gap efforts to protect the privacy and identity of protesters. “Real personal data protections will come from legal restrictions, not tools,” they write. “But we can build tools now and use them tomorrow. That is what we’ve got.”

Lewis Gordon is a writer and journalist. His work appears in outlets such as Vice, The Verge, The Nation, and The AV Club.

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