“I don’t consent to a search” - protecting your iPhone from police and other law enforcement

In any interaction with law enforcement, a critically important thing is to know your rights. Police will use any means they can - including force - to confuse you or interrupt your focus.

I’m going to focus on your rights regarding your phone. 

Before we get into that: two general items that you want to keep in mind about using your phone around police interaction on the street or in your car or home.  

First: For any interaction with police, record it. This stands whether you’re the target of the police or witnessing it. If your phone isn’t in your hand already, be sure to be safe about putting your hand in your pocket to retrieve your phone - police may claim you were reaching for a weapon.

Second: Quickly send a message to a trusted contact to let them know that you are in a police situation, and where you are. After doing this, force quit your text message app (Messages, Signal, WhatsApp, Messenger, etc) to remove it from your recent apps.  (On an iPhone, double-press the home button and then swipe the app window up and off the screen.) If your phone is grabbed before you have a chance to do anything else, you may get lucky and police will just look through your recent apps 

The rest of this guide applies to iPhones. I’ll write another post for Android users when I’m able to get an Android phone to test on.


If you have time to prepare 

If you know you are going into a police situation - for example at a protest or you’re responding to a call for people to cop watch - there are a number of steps you’ll want to consider to keep your phone safe.

  1.  Use a strong passcode . The standard 4-digit numeric code on a phone can quickly and easily be cracked by modern technology. Set your password to a longer string of numbers - or numbers and letters. To do this, open the Settings  app, tap Touch ID and Passcode  (or Face ID and Passcode ), then tap Change Passcode . Enter your old passcode to authenticate, then tap  Passcode Options and choose either Custom Alphanumeric Code  or Custom Numeric Code . Use a passcode you don’t use anywhere else and make it at least 12 characters.
  2. Disable biometric authentication. This means turning off TouchID / FaceID. Case law as it stands now allows police to compel you to provide your fingerprint or face to unlock your device. You cannot be forced to give up your passcode. To do this, open the Settings  app, tap Touch ID and Passcode  (or Face ID and Passcode ), then tap Change Passcode . Enter your old passcode to authenticate, then uncheck all the options under Use TouchID For  or Use FaceID For . Now your phone can only be unlocked using your more secure passcode. At this point, you should also turn off everything under Allow Access When Locked to prevent what can be done without your passcode.
  3. Quiet the notifications. Don’t expose the content of your incoming messages and limit as much of the metadata that your notifications show as possible. Metadata just means “data about data” - it’s not the message you get, it’s who sent it and when. You don’t want cops seeing the texts you get if they have your phone. open the Settings app, tap Notifications, tap Show Previews, then tap Never. The Messages app will still show who sent you a message but not the content of it. Other apps like Signal, Mail, Gmail and Slack will just show that you have a notification - not who it’s from or what it says. (You should get everyone you know to use Signal anyway.)
  4. Set it to self-destruct. Not physically, of course.  But you can set your iPhone to delete everything on it after your passcode is entered incorrectly 10 times. Follow the steps above to get into TouchID / FaceID and Passcode in Settings, and check Erase Data all the way at the bottom. Do note that this will actually erase everything on your phone - including your pictures - after 10 attempts to get in. I’ll post an article about backing your phone up securely another time so you don’t lose your meme collection and cat photos.

In fact, I recommend following steps 1 3 and 4 immediately to help with your security at all times.


On the spot

You won’t always know when you’ll be dealing with law enforcement. I use this whenever I need to - if a cop is walking up to me, or going through airport security.

TouchID and FaceID are extremely useful. I use TouchID on a regular basis - unlocking my phone with a long passcode regularly without it would be a major pain. Thankfully, Apple had a feature called Emergency SOS - better known as Cop Mode - for situations like this. Under Emergency SOS, Touch ID and FaceID are disabled - and your passcode will be required to get into your phone. Combined with a long passcode and locked down notifications, this goes a long way in just a few button presses.

You need to set up Emergency SOS mode. By default, it calls 911 within seconds of activating it - which you probably don’t want. To turn this off, open the Settings app, tap Emergency SOS, then turn off Auto Call.

To activate Emergency SOS mode, press the power button on the side of your iPhone 5 times. In this mode, your phone will require your passcode - not your fingerprint or face - to unlock it.

As an added benefit, your iPhone will require your passcode if it’s plugged into a USB device, making it harder to clone your phone to try to get into your data.

 You can still record video and take photos  in Emergency SOS mode. From the lock screen, swipe left to get into the camera. 



This is by no means a complete guide to securing your iPhone, especially around police encounters.It’s a good start that everyone can take immediately to keep themselves, their friends and loved ones and their data a little safer.