Illustration of a person using a smartphone to record video during a protest.

A 17-year-old used her phone to record the video of Minneapolis police officers killing George Floyd that has sparked protests across the country. The protests, too, have been documented by citizens with smartphones, bearing witness to police misconduct as well as looting and violence—often by people who seem unconnected to the demonstrations.

People willing to use their own phones to record events such as the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests have an important role to play, according to Dia Kayyali, program manager for technology and advocacy at Witness, a nonprofit human rights organization that works in countries around the world. “Witnessing and documenting police activity is actually a really great role for people who want to provide support, especially for white folks and others who may face less risk of retaliation,” Kayyali says. 

Steven John Irby, a street photographer, journalist, and co-founder of Street Dreams Magazine, has been documenting Black Lives Matter protests in New York City. “As a Black person, and as a human being, I think it’s crucial that people see and experience what’s going on. Documenting this is about taking control of the narrative, so people see the truth.”

More on Digital Privacy and Security

It takes some know-how to do this effectively and safely. For one thing, using your phone during a protest puts you at some risk of digital surveillance, and it's also important to understand your legal rights while recording video and still photos.

But if you decide to take on that risk and responsibility, you can flip a technology paradigm on its head. Instead of your phone helping others keep tabs on you—a problem CR reports on a lot—you can use your phone to help the public keep tabs on the government. 

"It's really about accountability," says Justin Brookman, Consumer Reports’ director of privacy and technology policy. “Because of ubiquitous cameras, countless acts of indefensible police behavior have been exposed in recent days."

Here’s advice from Irby and others on how to use a camera to be an effective witness, and keep yourself safe while you do it. 

What to Record

In the moment, it’s not always easy to know what you should be capturing. A general rule of thumb, according to civil rights activists, is to avoid videotaping peaceful protesters—that could make innocent people targets down the line.

However, if you are documenting what you consider to be police misconduct, or violence by civilians, you want to make it easy to identify the perpetrators. “Film police badges,” says Hunter Boone, a journalist who's been filming protests since 2015. “If the badges are covered up, aim videos at their helmets. Police officers’ numbers are printed there, too.”

Other details are important, too. Capture which weapons police officers are using and how they’re using them—many police departments have specific rules, and if those rules are being violated, your recording can document that. It’s also useful to record instructions the police give to demonstrators, to help settle later disputes over whether force is justified. 

Some law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department, have tips for filming police activity for the public [PDF]. According to the LAPD, everyone has the right to film and photograph police officers in public, but "you should be polite, respectful, and calm."

How to Record It

“The first question to ask yourself is what this video will be used for,” Kayyali says. If you think your video could provide important evidence in a trial, context matters. “Capture at least 10 seconds if you’re filming something important, and pan around slowly.”

This may feel unnatural—it’s not the way you’d capture video at a birthday party. But the goal is to capture as many details as possible. Also, be cautious about adding narration. You can describe what you see, but try not to provide strong opinions. That could make the video less useful in court.

Typically, it’s also best to record in landscape—or horizontal—mode, according to Irby, the journalist. “That can make for a better image, but it also gets more information in the frame, which is important if you’re trying to document evidence.”

Last, stay true to life, even if your goal is to post your video online rather than see it appear as evidence in court. “Don’t manipulate the photo after you take it. You might see beautiful things, and they might become art, and that’s great. But the goal is documentation and truth-telling,” Irby says. Final pro tip: Wipe down your camera lens periodically. Otherwise, grime and smudges could get in the way.

If you have a digital camera, you might want to think about using that instead of your phone, and not just because it may take better photos. A camera with a fresh memory card in it has far less personal information than a cell phone does, and it doesn’t open you up to digital surveillance the way a phone does. 

How to Protect Your Phone

Generally, the law protects your phone from arbitrary searches. However, police have confiscated or searched cell phones at past protests, according to Witness, the ACLU, and other organizations, and Irby says he's seen that happen during the current protests. You can safeguard your videos—and your personal data, such as your contacts, text messages, and social media posts—by supercharging your lock screen. Use a strong PIN, and turn off Face ID, fingerprint unlock, or any other biometrics. (Check this guide for more instructions.)

While you're at it, most smartphones will let you open the camera app without unlocking the phone. Use that feature, and if an officer takes your phone while you're recording, he or she won't be able to get to your personal information. This can also help you start capturing images more quickly.

On newer iPhones and many Android phones, the camera is accessible from the lock screen by default. On a Google Pixel, add the camera function to your lock screen by going to Settings > System > Gestures > Jump to camera. Switch the toggle on, and you'll be able to double-tap the power button to bring up the camera.

If you can’t figure out how to do it, search for the name of your device and “add camera to lock screen” online. The instructions are usually simple. 

What the Law Says

Generally, you have the legal right to take a photograph or video of anything in a public space, including police activity. Police can’t legally demand your phone or coerce you to show them your images without a warrant.

Audio is a more complicated story, including sound that’s captured during a video. In some jurisdictions, it’s illegal to record someone’s voice without their consent. However, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, making audio recordings of the police is legal in nearly all cases. You may want to check state laws to be sure of your rights.

Mobile apps built for this kind of documentation can be helpful. The ACLU’s Mobile Justice apps are designed to comply with local laws in different states. (Witness has tips on choosing a documentation app—several are available in addition to the ACLU’s.)

However, your cell-phone camera doesn’t give you a free legal pass to do anything you want. You’re not allowed to physically interfere with law enforcement operations, and the police have discretion over what counts as interfering. If a police officer orders you to step back, do it.

According to the guidance from the LAPD, you should hold a camera openly without any sudden movements to demonstrate you're not a threat. If an officer detains you or directs you to stop filming, the department says you should calmly ask for a basis for the actions.

In Irby’s experience, it’s hard to predict how police officers will react to civilians using their cell-phone cameras. “I took a photo of a police officer with my camera, and he leaned over and asked me how it turned out. I showed him, and he said, ‘Not that bad,’” Irby says. It was a nice moment. “I’ve also seen times where cops grab a phone and throw it. It really depends on the situation.” 

How to Share Images

If you want to post the videos and photos you’ve taken online, you can get more attention for them if you use hashtags related to specific protests, events, or movements. Connecting online with like-minded people using those hashtags can help get the word out, as well.

“Upload your videos as soon as you can, because if the footage is out there, someone like me is going to find it,” and then share it more widely, Hunter Boone, the journalist, says. It's smart to use more than one platform, but be sure to include Twitter, where journalists and activists are most likely to see the images.

Even if you’re not posting your photos publicly, it’s smart to quickly upload your images to your own cloud-storage account to preserve your work in case your phone is lost, stolen, or confiscated by police officers. This is easy to do with both iPhones and most Android phones.

Sharing your images can support an important cause, but in some cases it can also put individuals at risk. As mentioned above, it’s best to avoid posting recognizable photos of protesters. That could make them targets, not just for prosecutors but also for online trolls who may identify the individuals and target them for harassment or threats.

One option is to blur out faces. Be careful: It's easy to reverse certain kinds of photo manipulation in editing apps. However, some software is designed specifically for this purpose. The free encrypted messaging service Signal just launched a new feature that makes it easy to blur faces in photos that you're sending to a contact. You can then download your blurred photo and post it elsewhere. If you’re sharing a video, YouTube has a tool that makes it easy to blur parts of the image, as well.

One more technical note: Camera apps typically capture Exif data along with still photos, which is metadata that can identify what kind of device took the photo, and precisely where and when it was taken. Cell phones can capture similar details with video files. Most social media platforms scrub this information when images are uploaded, but the data is typically preserved if the file is sent through in a text message or email. That could be important if you’re not posting a photo yourself but are sending it anonymously to an advocacy organization or journalist.

The easiest way to remove the data from a still photo is to take a screenshot of a photo and share that instead. If you have an iPhone, the Photos app in iOS 13 makes it easy to remove location data from both photos and videos. If you don't want the data captured at all while you're at a protest, turn off location services in settings before you leave home or revoke your camera's location permissions.

No matter what, you’ll be revealing some things about yourself if you decide to post videos or photographs online, even under an assumed name. Social media platforms normally will comply with legal requests for information on their account holders’ activities. And your documentation is more powerful if you're willing to attach your name to it.

To people like Irby, the trade-offs are worthwhile. There’s risk involved, he says, but this is a moment when "you have an opportunity to have a voice.”