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Hong Kong is showing the world how to protest anonymously in an era of mass surveillance

By Nikhil Sonnad, Isabelle Niu
Hong Kong and Barcelona, SpainPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This story is part of an ongoing series on how China is reshaping our world.

It’s harder than ever to be anonymous. Modern life is lived on the internet, and the internet is increasingly centralized in the hands of national governments and a few prominent tech companies.

All that has made it more difficult to express dissent, online and off. Protesters facing threats of arrest or doxxing can no longer rely on mainstream platforms. Facebook requires users to register with their real names. On WeChat, users must provide a phone number, which is tied to their government ID. Police or political adversaries can collate public posts from places like Twitter and Reddit to identify otherwise anonymous users.

But dissidents are using technology in new ways to organize their movements without leaders, and protect their identities.

These new methods have faced their biggest test in Hong Kong, where protesters have been clashing with police for months, as they stare down the world’s most sophisticated surveillance state, China. There’s no evidence so far that China is using technologies like facial recognition or GPS tracking to find and arrest protesters in Hong Kong. But such things have happened in China itself, and protesters are afraid these techniques will be exported.

It’s not just China, though. Mass surveillance and government control of the internet are global trends. New York City’s police department has been keeping track of photos and Twitter activity of people who took part in Black Lives Matter protests years ago. The Spanish government published a decree allowing authorities to close websites if they pose “a serious and immediate threat to public order.” It was widely considered a direct response to unrest in Catalonia, where people have been taking to the streets to demand independence from Spain.

Quartz traveled to both Hong Kong and Catalonia to find out how protesters are upgrading dissent for the era of mass surveillance. It’s the latest episode of our video series Because China.

These movements, we discovered, are using technology to organize anonymously, and without leaders. Strategy is discussed on online forums. Decisions are made via online polls. Updates are shared on messaging apps. Protesters are developing their own apps to make sure only fellow activists can see what’s going on.

In the constant whack-a-mole game between states and their discontents, protesters are fighting to stay one step ahead.

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