In an indictment against Defend the Atlanta Forest activists in Georgia, state prosecutors are citing use of encrypted communications to fearmonger. Alleging the defendants—which include journalists and lawyers, in addition to activists—in the indictment were responsible for a number of crimes related to the Stop Cop City campaign, the state Attorney General’s prosecutors cast suspicion on the defendants’ use of Signal, Telegram, Tor, and other everyday data-protecting technologies.

“Indeed, communication among the Defend the Atlanta Forest members is often cloaked in secrecy using sophisticated technology aimed at preventing law enforcement from viewing their communication and preventing recovery of the information” the indictment reads. “Members often use the dark web via Tor, use end-to-end encrypted messaging app Signal or Telegram.”

The secure messaging app Signal is used by tens of millions of people, and has hundreds of millions of global downloads. In 2021, users moved to the nonprofit-run private messenger en masse as concerns were raised about the data-hungry business models of big tech. In January of that year, former world’s richest man Elon Musk tweeted simply “Use Signal.” And world-famous NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden tweeted in 2016 what in information security circles would become a meme and truism: “Use Tor. Use Signal.”

Despite what the bombastic language would have readers believe, installing and using Signal and Tor is not an initiation rite into a dark cult of lawbreaking. The “sophisticated technology” being used here are apps that are free, popular, openly distributed, and widely accessible by anyone with an internet connection. Going further, the indictment ascribes the intentions of those using the apps as simply to obstruct law enforcement surveillance. Taking this assertion at face value, any judge or reporter reading the indictment is led to believe everyone using the app simply wants to evade the police. The fact that these apps make it harder for law enforcement to access communications is exactly because the encryption protocol protects messages from everyone not intended to receive them—including the users’ ISP, local network hackers, or the Signal nonprofit itself.

Elsewhere, the indictment hones in on the use of anti-surveillance techniques to further its tenuous attempts to malign the defendants: “Most ‘Forest Defenders’ are aware that they are preparing to break the law, and this is demonstrated by premeditation of attacks.” Among a laundry list of other techniques, the preparation is supposedly marked by “using technology avoidance devices such as Faraday bags and burner phones.” Stoking fears around the use of anti-surveillance technologies sets a dangerous precedent for all people who simply don’t want to be tracked wherever they go. In protest situations, carrying a prepaid disposable phone can be a powerful defense against being persecuted for participating in first-amendment protected activities. Vilifying such activities as the acts of wrongdoers would befit totalitarian societies, not ones in which speech is allegedly a universal right.

To be clear, prosecutors have apparently not sought to use court orders to compel either the defendants or the companies named to enter passwords or otherwise open devices or apps. But vilifying the defendants’ use of common sense encryption is a dangerous step in cases that the Dekalb County District Attorney has already dropped out of, citing “different prosecutorial philosophies.”

Using messengers which protect user communications, browsers which protect user anonymity, and employing anti-surveillance techniques when out and about are all useful strategies in a range of situations. Whether you’re looking into a sensitive medical condition, visiting a reproductive health clinic with the option of terminating a pregnancy, protecting trade secrets from a competitor, wish to avoid stalkers or abusive domestic partners, protecting attorney-client exchanges, or simply want to keep your communications, browsing, and location history private, these techniques can come in handy. It is their very effectiveness which has led to the widespread adoption of privacy-protective technologies and techniques. When state prosecutors spread fear around the use of these powerful techniques, this sets us down a dangerous path where citizens are more vulnerable and at risk.