In fact, in a surprising majority of cases, DxE investigators find that doors are left unlocked on farm complexes, Bernier says, due to the sheer size of the facilities, the number of laborers working on them, and their high employment turnover. On one of his first investigations, Bernier says, he spent 45 minutes trying to pick a door lock before realizing that there was an unlocked door on another side of the building. On a different occasion, he says, he found an open combination lock that was still set to the combination used for padlocks across the facility. “The kind of vulnerabilities that really lead to issues are not, like, you didn’t update your locks to all Assa Abloy locks,” Bernier says. “It’s patching the massive hole in the barn or actually closing the windows at night.”
When it comes to secure communications, DxE’s guide emphasizes the usual online cybersecurity and privacy recommendations. The group uses the encrypted messaging app Signal, with disappearing messages set to what Bernier describes as an “annoyingly” short time limit for every possible conversation, both sensitive topics and day-to-day planning. It also describes using the anonymity software Tor for web browsing related to investigations and the privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo for research.
If a phone has to be taken along on an investigation, the guide describes using a burner phone, with strict operational security rules: bought at a physical store, kept away from an investigator’s home, stored in a Faraday bag when not in use, and never left in the same place as someone’s non-burner phone.
For the group’s on-the-ground communications during investigations, however, the manual describes using handheld radios rather than phones. It includes a detailed run-down of different options and models, but ultimately names Hytera PD7 series devices as its preferred radios: They offer strong AES encryption, as well as headsets or earpieces that allow them to be used silently. “Encrypted radios are absolutely one of the most secure ways to communicate because they’re short range and not networked at all,” Bernier says.
A Last Resort
DxE’s release of its investigation manual will no doubt raise new criticisms that DxE is encouraging dangerous actions or even enabling other kinds of illegal actors like thieves or terrorists. To those potential critics, Bernier points out that the manual omits specific intrusion techniques that might be abused, and is entirely nonviolent in its recommendations—even if the operations it describes are illegal in many cases. “I think this guide is very clearly aimed at people with the intention of nonviolently exposing injustice,” Bernier argues.
Just as much as encouraging others to join DxE’s mission, he says that releasing the guide is an acknowledgement that groups around the world, from Europe to Australia to South America, are already carrying out investigations similar to DxE’s. He says the guide is an attempt to create an information hub across those groups.
Bernier notes, too, that while DxE’s intrusion tactics might sound radical, it’s exactly these sorts of operations that have played a key role in everything from anti-nuclear-war activism to the exposure of the FBI’s COINTELPRO scandal to grassroots environmental justice work.
“It might seem extreme to the average person, like it’s not necessary to share this information. But there’s a long history of these kinds of investigations being crucial” for social justice movements, Bernier says. “This is the last resort option. If people feel they’re in that situation, if they’re going to do this, they should have the information to do it safely.”