23 October 2014

The so-called “Umbrella Revolution” in Hong Kong may be the most high-tech protest ever, with demonstrators 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.

Technology is used by protesters to communicate among themselves and with the public. In one effort, messages left by the public on a web page were displayed over 8 meters tall on the wall of a government building, thanks to a high-powered video projector erected in the heart of the protest area.

Sociologists point out that the most powerful messaging medium at the protests is still a cardboard sign scribbled on by markers. However, those handmade artifacts have been globally amplified by social media platforms.  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. 

Paradoxically, the smart and successful use of technology by protesters to illustrate their cause and create solidarity in and beyond the city is in great part due to government policy. The city’s ambitions in the 1990s to be a multimedia and creative hub has 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, among other things, in widespread adoption of message sharing platforms. Furthermore, 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 it has seen a record 200,000 downloads in Hong Kong alone, putting powerful and scalable mass messaging on peoples’ handheld devices.

An important aspect of the government’s response to the protest movement has been a remarkable respect of its tradition of open communications. Unlike the rest of China, where popular social networks like Weibo and WeChat have been systematically filtering and banning coverage of the protests and western media have been blocked, press operations are unfettered in Hong Kong. There is no media blackout and no “Great Firewall”, as Hong Kong is connected to the outside world through a commercially competitive and decentralized telecommunications infrastructure.

The demonstrators, however, are not the only technology savvy users. Cyber-attacks emerge as an important tool to disrupt the protest by those who oppose it. For example, 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, which could compromise Apple devices. While there have not been reports of widespread infection, it does foreshadow significant cyber-skirmishes in the future, pitting protesters and anti-protesters in a battle of bits.

by Claudio Murri


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