Friday, August 12, 2011

Security Culture For Anarchists & Activists

Throughout history it has been deemed necessary by some to take illegal action for the purposes of defending life and liberty. Examples of groups and individuals carrying out such actions are myriad. A very short list would include the abolitionist John Brown, the writer Henry David Thoreau, Emma Goldman, the Mahatma Ghandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, protesters at Tiananmen Square, members of the Earth Liberation Front, and an endless number of others. Very often, the actions taken by such individuals incur great personal risk. The following article may potentially help keep modern freedom fighters safe and free.
Other primers on security culture do already exist, but having another one accessible won't hurt, may serve as a reminder of some safety measures, and might include some aspects not covered elsewhere. This article will draw on the advice of similar articles as well as personal observations and experience. No particular action is suggested or defended, nor is any knowledge about any particular action desired or requested by the author. Defending an action in hindsight is not the same as wanting to know anything about an action beforehand. Informing those who don't want to know (or need to know) about any particular action can be seen as an attempt to compromise the action.

The #1 Security Measure: Acting Alone

The more people who are involved with any particular action, the more likely that action will be discovered in an untimely manner. At the simplest level... more people are easier to spot than a lone individual. More importantly, the likelihood that any vital information will be overheard, leaked, or later revealed also increases. The scale of any particular action may be reduced (or require more effort) but that may be the price necessarily paid if one wants to stay free and have a higher degree of certainty about the success of an action. Some actions may be safer and work better in groups, but as a general rule... acting alone is the safest way to proceed with any illegal action.

Small Groups

Generally speaking, the greater number of people who are involved with any action increases the likelihood of that action being discovered, thwarted, and punished by the same factor. Therefore, it is imperative that you truly know who you are acting alongside. More to the point... it is imperative that you are each acting in solidarity and not merely acting. It has been revealed that undercover agents of the state have gone so far as to marry activists they were surveilling. In various other primers about security culture it is often suggested that you know an individual for some number of years before you engage in any serious action. That number of years may be arbitrary depending on conditions, but I would suggest additional measure... scaling of actions. Even after years... it is not suggested that the first action you undertake with someone should not be highly dangerous. If you want to do something major with others... start engaging in smaller actions with them first over the course of time. This will let you learn their level of competence, how they handle pressure or unexpected occurrences, and, generally, how well you can trust them. This is not certain to protect you from betrayal, but it should help dramatically.


Public organizations are filled with treacherous authoritarians. They may simply be making lists, possibly recording, buying the beer, laughing at your jokes, nodding in agreement, shaking hands, and basically observing... but even after years these things do not make them trustworthy. Others may be openly suggesting those most ridiculous, dangerous, and counterproductive actions. They too, may have their certain appeal (perhaps as idealists or firebrands)... but are not to be trusted. Undercover agents have also been known to take the leadership role in public organizations -- so such status should not be seen as a reason to trust them.

Your best bet, if you are planning to take serious high risk action, is to avoid associating with public organizations. You do not want to get on any list as any sort of a known activist or sympathizer if you are planning any sort of serious action. You do not want to be on the state's radar at all if you are planning serious action.

Even if you are intending to limit yourself to mild public protests, it is still often best to be wary of who is involved with such actions. Information about such actions can be used to thwart them in advance or make them less impactful. The repercussions could be as simple as having a few uniformed officers showing up at the protest location beforehand with the effect of intimidating and limiting any particular action. Or, perhaps, a corporate or state entity could be given a jump start on any PR they might need to counter and marginalize any particular act of protest.

Mass Demonstrations

Major protests surrounding things like the RNC & DNC conventions, or the G8, IMF, and WTO meetings... will continue -- for better and/or worse. I tend to think these protests do have a valuable place in any movement for freedom and social justice, but certain risks surrounding them need to be acknowledge and considered.

First of all... if you are already involved with serious actions, going to such mass demonstrations is a way to wind up on the state's radar. This can happen if you are arrested or merely identified (cameras are EVERYWHERE at such events). And, if you are planning a serious unrelated action, you may want to wait a full year to put it into effect after attending a public protest. This can be a conditional judgment call on your part, but it's something to consider.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, is that you need to be prepared for police violence. Even if you are walking with the most peaceful people on Earth... heavy handed tactics are often used to disperse protests and to dissuade future protests. To avoid being brutalized by the state it is imperative that you remain constantly aware of your surroundings at such protests. How close are you to police lines? What is their posture? Are they dressed in full riot gear? Are their pepper spray cannisters being prepared for use? Is the protest being guided into an enclosed area? Are you and the rest of the protesters prepared to hold or take ground -- to what extent and under which circumstances?

Third... Dress for success. Wear comfortable shoes. Have an easily carried bottle of water, perhaps in a light bag. Wear non-descript clothing -- black pants, black shirt, a generic cap, sunglasses (or safety glasses), and have a bandana or scarf around your neck. Be prepared to discard and change these clothes if necessary. If you are possibly engaging in more militant actions... consider changing your style of hair or beard. Cover your tattoos. This will make it more difficult to identify you before, during, and after the event.

Fourth... In many instances it may behoove you to leave your identifying documents at home. Even if arrested, you might not always have to give your name. This is conditional for your consideration.  Sometimes large groups withhold their names as an act of civil disobedience pending release.

Fifth... It is often best, even in the midst of a larger protest, to operate within a smaller, separate, affinity group. Discuss beforehand what you plan to do and consider your collective response to various situations. Try not to split up too much and always stay with at least one other member of your group. Extra eyes can help everyone be more aware of things the rest may have missed. Have predetermined meet-up times and locations in case you get separated. Discrete use of cell phones can also be useful for these purposes (but might also be monitored).

Finally... Consider alternative actions -- either away from immediate vicinity of the main protest (and police) or even in your own town/city. This could be an independently organized protest march or an individual action carried out in solidarity with the main protest. Be creative and bold.

Computers & Electronic Surveillance

Various groups have recently started demonstrating the protest possibilities enabled by modern communication technologies. This includes the participants of flash mobs as well as groups like AntiSec and the appropriately named Anonymous. Beyond that... social networking has opened up the floodgates for mass organization and action. It's likely that this trend will continue to grow, and become more creative, for some time.

Nevertheless, with that in mind, in needs to be recognized that modern communication techniques are easily monitored by the state who work hand in hand with the various corporations in control of the online networks. Precautions can be taken to secure your personal computer and communication devices to some degree -- but vulnerabilities will always exist or arise with such mediums and should never be considered secure for the purposes of transmitting sensitive information. You can get a hardware firewall, clear your cookies, use encryption and proxies, and you can even use your devices away from home... but your digital communications can still often be traced back to you. Proceed with utmost caution when dealing in this realm and don't take the most serious actions with these tools unless you are a highly trained expert.


If you are approached or arrested by the authorities... do not give them any more information than you absolutely must. It is best to politely confirm whether or not you are being arrested or detained and, if you are not, then ask if you may leave. The nature of authoritarians is that you may be told you are not being detained but still not allowed to leave. Do not answer any questions which you are not legally obliged to in your jurisdiction, and ask again if you are being detained and arrested.

If you are being detained or arrested you can ask why, but still do not need to answer their questions. Instead... request to speak to a lawyer, preferably a trustworthy one (good luck with that now that Leonard Weinglass is dead), and work to expedite your release while giving them as little information as possible to make that happen. You do not have to spill your guts to a lawyer about anything you may be involved with. They can potentially turn on you.

If a case against you is proceeding... it can get tricky. I am not a legal expert, by any means, but it can often behoove you to request a jury trial and then do your best to select a favorable jury (although that's not necessarily possible even if you are completely innocent). You might want to look into the possibility of jury nullification. Jury trials are expensive, time consuming, and potentially embarrassing to the state. Again... you will want trusted legal advice in these matters, and I am not a lawyer or an attorney of any sort. These are simply some options that I feel you may want to consider.

Most importantly... you should never snitch or turn on anyone. Even if you will seemingly get a much better offer and sentencing consideration, it is the worst thing you can do for your cause, for yourself, and for others who may be involved. To say that no one likes a snitch or a turncoat is one of the greatest understatements that can be made. Playing such a role is something which you will never live down -- and it can be worse if you are still facing time after your cooperation. This is something which should be understood by everyone with whom you might be coordinating illegal action.

General Surveillance

The following may be something to especially be wary of if you are an overt and outspoken activist -- even if you are doing nothing illegal whatsoever. I've already briefly covered electronic surveillance, but sometimes they put people on the ground to monitor you as a supposed friend or, worse in my opinion, as someone to simply harass you by following you around.

More than a decade ago, when I was a younger and more aggressively outspoken lad, I had a guy who parked in front of my apartment every day (he did not live in my neighborhood) and he would show up, every day, wherever I went. I'd go to a coffee shop, he'd be there. I'd go to another... and he'd pop up there. I'd go to see a band play... he'd show up outside the venue.  I'd be in a grocery store late at night... and he'd be the only other customer in the store with me. This went on for weeks and was about the same time I was getting little leaflets left on my doorstep from "The Church of Euthanasia" suggesting that I should kill myself to save the environment. Psychologically, these things can be very taxing but are right up the alley of COINTELPRO type activities. Be wary of these things, document such stalkers, and try to keep a level head. It goes without saying that you may not want to take unnecessary risks under such surveillance.

I'm going to tack on issues of sending and receiving mail here too -- because that can easily be monitored as well. I once received a letter from a prominent anarchist which looked like it had all but literally been through the ringer when I received it. I've never received any other mail in that condition. It arrived in a clear plastic bag which had text apologizing for the condition. And the biggest boldest letters on the bag read "WE CARE." Suffice it to say that you should never discuss anyone's involvement with illegal actions through the mail. That too is easily placed under surveillance.  You may want to consider keeping your names off of certain mailing lists which might be used to profile you.  

Other Related Sources of Information on this Subject

Undoubtedly, I've left some things out of this primer. Tactics of the state can be utterly diabolical in their creativity and can sometimes prove difficult to circumvent. Since most people today are never involved with illegal direct action protests... they do not know the risks and are often oblivious to the realities of surveillance. Lesser known activists may actually prove easier to harass than prominent figures with more people looking out for them and the resources to defend themselves. But some people will try to marginalize your concerns if you haven't appeared on the cover of a magazine at the grocery store. The main thing, if you suspect that you may be under surveillance, is to keep your head about you. Try to consider all the possibilities and try to balance your actions with the potential risks you are willing to undertake. And thoroughly consider what you truly hope to accomplish by any particular action. Some people may not have the stomache or the nerves for certain activities and that's something which needs to be acknowledged. Some people may be better at communicating, or showing up at mass protests, or a combination of actions with less of a risk. The main thing is try and be aware of these things.

Here is an excellent video related to these topics and some links to other related material...

ESSENTIAL VIEWING:  Navigating the Security Culture

General Security from --

The Judi Bari commemorative website --

Martin Luther King friend and photographer was FBI informant:

Undercover policeman married activist he was sent to spy on:

Police spies chosen to lead war protest :

The Right to Protest: The Basic ACLU guide to Free Expression :

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