In Hong Kong’s protests, technology is a battlefield

We all shine on.
We all shine on.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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It was an image that fascinated the world—a sea of lights coming from thousands of Hong Kong protesters waving their lit up mobile phones in the darkness. That’s what you get from a city that averages more than two mobile phones per person.

Occupy Central, aka the Umbrella Revolution, may be the most high-tech protest ever, using wireless broadband, multimedia smartphones, drone film making, mobile video projectors, and live streaming video to communicate and to broadcast their cause to the entire world in real time. The victor in this conflict will be determined by who holds the streets, and who rules the digital space.

This dynamic has energized an unprecedented public relations offensive that tech savvy protestors have used to creative ends. In one effort, messages left by the public on a web page are displayed over 8 meters tall on the wall of a government building, courtesy of a high-powered video projector erected in the heart of the protest area.

Cardboard signs meet social media

While the world marvels at the spectacle of the protest, we must guard against tech-euphoria. Facebook didn’t solve everything in the Arab Spring protests and hashtag activism is all too often a feel-good exercise with limited, or no, results. Lokman Tsui, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and an ex-Google employee, notes the most powerful messaging medium at the protests is still a cardboard sign scribbled on by markers. But those handmade artifacts of protest have been globally amplified by social media platforms, inspiring others to hold mini-rallies in cities around the world in solidarity.

There are high stakes here. The Tiananmen crackdown of June 4, 1989 is never far from peoples’ minds, resulting in remarkable message discipline among the demonstrators, who are focused on leadership change and universal suffrage, while avoiding any talk of independence or secession. Most of the communications coordination happens through electronic and social media over wireless networks that have allowed the leaderless movement to spread while still staying on target. A key to the extensive media coverage is that press operations are unfettered in Hong Kong. There is no media blackout and no Great Firewall of China here, as Hong Kong is connected to the outside world through a commercially competitive and decentralized telecommunications infrastructure.

In the rest of China, however, it’s a different situation. By an edict from the Beijing authorities, popular social networks like Weibo and WeChat have been systematically filtering and banning coverage of the protests. Instagram was completely blocked in mainland China shortly after the demonstrations.

The legacy of Hong Kong’s tech push

The city’s ambitions in the dot-com 1990s to be a multimedia and creative hub has yielded unexpected collateral benefits. The push to be a top technology center in Asia and the establishment of game design and computer animation studios created many competent computer coders. That allowed for collectives of programmers to form, such as Code4HK, whose motto is “Drive social change by code.” The hacktivist group has created an online portal to help demonstrators keep track of protest locations, organize logistics, and provide video streams.

The Hong Kong government’s technology efforts also fostered world-class mobile data networks that cover subways, tunnels, and every nook of the city. Wireless dead zones are a rarity. As a result, Hong Kong boasts one of the highest rates of smartphone penetration—currently over 85%—which has resulted in widespread adoption of Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp as message sharing platforms.

With an overall mobile subscription rate of 237%, there is no other place on earth quite like Hong Kong. That’s not a typo—on average there are more than two mobile subscriptions per person. It’s not unusual for a taxi cab driver to have at least three phones—one for work, one for family, and several for betting on horse racing. Hong Kongers are used to being connected, several times over.

However, packing thousands of people shoulder to shoulder in a protest can overwhelm even the best mobile data networks. Cutting edge technologies such as peer-to-peer mesh networking allow phones to utilize Bluetooth and Wifi networking to message others in their immediate vicinity, without needing an Internet connection. FireChat is the most popular app of this type, and has seen a record 200,000 downloads in Hong Kong alone, putting powerful and scalable mass messaging on peoples’ handheld devices.

Cyber shenanigans emerge

The importance of mobile is perhaps why we have seen concerted efforts to compromise the distributed mobile citizenry through malicious software and “trojan horse” apps. In September, bogus messages purporting to be from trusted sources asked people to, “Check out this Android app designed by Code4HK for the coordination of OCCUPY CENTRAL!” Clicking the link resulted in eavesdropping malware being installed on the victim’s device. A version that infected iOS was also found to be in the wild, which could compromise “jailbroken”Apple devices. While there have not been reports of widespread infection, it does foreshadow significant cyber-skirmishes in the future, pitting the government against citizens in a battle of bits.

Many regional experts feel the protest stalemate is now unlikely to result in a violent end as in 1989. The Hong Kong police force of roughly 30,000 is no match for the hundreds of thousands flooding the streets, and the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong is even smaller. The edict from Beijing has already come down to wait out the protesters and resolve issues without violence.

That’s good news. But that turns the confrontation into an information war rather than one conducted with guns and bullets. Digital devices will be the battleground. Misinformation and digital infiltration may become critical parts of the Beijing’s tactics to defuse the protesters or breed internal conflict among the organizers.

Who will prevail?

Hong Kong is one most technologically-adept cities in the world; the authorities in China are sophisticated purveyors of online information warfare. But in the current scenario Beijing is at a distinct disadvantage. Unlike in the mainland, the government does not control the routers and cables, or the institutional and infrastructural chokepoints of the network. And what we’re already seeing on Hong Kong’s streets is an amazing display of what unfettered, disciplined, and intelligent crowds can accomplish.

One thing is clear: whoever dominates the digital domain will control the eventual outcome—whether it takes a week, or a generation.