Go incognito: Avoid surveillance in real life

Privacy news
5 mins
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The surveillance state is here, watching you from when you leave your apartment all the way to work, the mall, and the club. It is not unthinkable to go completely dark online, but how do we move in the real world without being seen?

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1. Leave your devices at home

Your phone is the perfect tracking device—as long as it connects to a cell tower, it will transmit its serial number and SIM-card identifier, allowing the police, the telco, and pretty much anybody to find out your exact location.

Similarly, when connecting to Wi-Fi, your MAC address transmits to the router, which can use the signal strength to locate you in public parks and buildings. Unlike with phones, there is widely available software that helps you to mask your MAC address, and some operating systems like TAILS will do so by default.

Invest in a burner phone (paid in cash) or use an old phone that you no longer use and avoid registering it under an identifiable alias (like your name, nickname, public Twitter, Instagram, or Reddit handle). Disable your location settings on your device, for obvious reasons. 

If you have to bring your phone, make sure you’re encrypting your device and apps with a strong password and, while you’re there, disable biometrics, which will make it harder for law enforcement to unlock your phone.

If you are trying to go incognito, do not take your personal phone outside with you, as anyone with access to cell towers will be able to locate it and, by extension, you.

If you need to bring a device, consider a device that comes without a SIM slot, such as a small laptop running TAILS. If you are willing to accept some risks, a tablet or iPod Touch may be more convenient. You can use these devices to connect to public Wi-Fi spots, and tunnel your traffic through Tor and VPN.

Read more: Countries with SIM-card registration laws

2. Encrypt your communications

With invasive surveillance measures rolling out in many countries and cities, you’ll want to minimize how much can be read by authorities. Make sure no one can find out about your plans or whereabouts in advance by snooping on your communications with friends and family.

SMS and phone calls are not encrypted by default and should be avoided, but you also have to be careful with email and all other unencrypted forms of communication. Use end-to-end encrypted, password-protected services like Signal for your messages, and avoid communicating through emails.

If you want complete anonymity in the real world, you can’t have a phone or anything with a SIM card again, ever. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a phone number, though, but be wary about what information you’re giving away when you’re setting up virtual numbers, like credit- and debit-card numbers.

Read more: The best messaging apps for privacy and security

3. Obscure your face

The biggest threat to your privacy are cameras, and you might come across dozens of them in your daily routine. Luckily, automated surveillance is easier to beat than a human eye.

To avoid automated surveillance, you should hide your face with a hat or by donning a face mask. If you’re moving around by bike, your helmet can act as a cover too. Face paint may be touted as a novel way to try bypassing facial recognition, but aside from making you stand out from the crowd, it is far less efficient and successful at hiding your face from CCTV scanners.

Read more: Face masks help evade facial recognition tech—for now

4. Walk, don’t ride

Commuting is necessary, but be mindful to never break the following rules:

  • Don’t drive a car or motorbike, or anything with a car plate
  • Don’t use ride-sharing apps like Uber
  • Don’t use an electronic transit card
  • Don’t buy tickets with anything other than cash; in fact don’t use credit cards at all

Cycling is good, as is walking. What matters is that you blend in with the crowd. If you live in a city where nobody walks, you shouldn’t either. If you’re the only one with a bike, don’t bother.

Avoid going to the same restaurants or supermarkets too often. If you want to blend in, observe the crowd and their behavior before deciding on your wardrobe, tipping habits, or greeting salutes.

Read more: Why you should care about car privacy

5. Be wary of social media

We cannot deny that sharing things on social media can be impactful in the world.

But bear in mind that anything you share online can build an accurate picture of your location, activity, and personally identifiable information that can compromise your safety in real life.

If you have to share something on social media, take precautions surrounding who can see your posts and the sort of metadata that is visible in photos and videos you upload.

Read more: 4 ways you can be identified through social media

6. Live in the right crowds

The more crowded, busy, and chaotic your neighborhood is, the better. You should also find a building with multiple entrances, no security guards, and as few video cameras as possible. Being close to markets, public transportation, and crowded places will help you blend in and stay discreet.

Having roommates or subletting can make things a lot easier as you won’t have to worry about electricity bills and rental payments in your name. Ideally, you can move out anytime and don’t have to share too much information with your roommates—though you still need to trust them somewhat.

Stay vigilant about your privacy and security, online and offline

We should not have to compromise our privacy for convenience’s sake. It is easy to feel like the fight for privacy in the physical world is lost, but there are still many things we can do to preserve our liberties, and they don’t have to be as drastic as those in this post. But unless a significant number of people make a conscious choice for privacy, it might soon be lost for everyone.

Lexie is the blog's resident tech expert and gets excited about empowerment through technology, space travel, and pancakes with blueberries.