How technology fuels Hong Kong's protesters
People are using encrypted chat apps and ditching transportation cards to avoid detection, with anti-extradition protests streamed on gaming site Twitch
The first group of protesters rushed the main road shortly before 8am.
Within minutes, messages started popping up on people’s phones sharing information about the location of police officers and instructions on where protesters needed reinforcements.
As thousands of demonstrators stormed major routes in the heart of Hong Kong Wednesday morning, messaging apps like Telegram, WhatsApp and Signal became key tools for ralliers to organize their effort.
The tide of protesters on Wednesday was so large that the internet all but slowed to a crawl -- there were just too many people. This didn’t stop the well-organized youth. Besides, they could always resort to the age-old method of communicating with a large crowd: Shouting.
The rally has already drawn comparisons to the Umbrella Movement in 2014 -- a pro-democracy protest lasting more than two months that shut down major highways in the city center. And just as in 2014, protesters organized themselves quickly.
Supply stations were up and running by Wednesday morning, dispensing food, water and protective gear. A huge screen was set up to broadcast live TV news, drawing cheers from the crowd whenever the protest was mentioned.
But the use of technology can be a double-edged sword, and protesters are also keenly aware of how it can be used for tracking and surveillance.
“People are smarter around technology now. They are using tech in a way that doesn't give you away,” said Lokman Tsui, a professor focusing on media and technology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
One way to keep safe, he said, is to turn off Face ID and Touch ID on iPhones. Laws in Hong Kong ensure that people have a right not to incriminate themselves. This includes refusing to give the pin to unlock your phone. However, authorities could force unwilling detainees to unlock their handsets using facial recognition or fingerprints.
But he also noted that some apps, like Telegram, are not as safe as protesters assume. Unlike WhatsApp, Signal and iMessage, messages over Telegram are not encrypted by default.
“Most people don't know that they have to actually turn it on,” he said.
Even more confusion abounds about what is and isn’t safe.
One protester told us some of her friends stopped using Octopus cards, a contactless payment card widely used for public transport in Hong Kong. Each card has a unique serial number, with some linked to personal information such as names, dates of birth and identity card numbers. This has led to fears that they could expose a user’s whereabouts -- causing long lines in subway stations as people line up to buy single-use tickets, normally a rare occurrence for locals.
“There is a lot of uncertainty on what can or cannot be traced, that's why there are so many conspiracy theories coming up,” Tsui said. Much of this uncertainty still stems from laws that are unclear, he added.