Hong Kong’s Smart Mobs: How Technology-Savvy Protesters have used, and can improve their use of, FireChat to Further their Political Cause

October 7, 2014

On September 26, swarms of protesters in Hong Kong took to the streets demanding electoral reform. They demanded then, and continue to demand, a free vote for the upcoming 2017 election for chief executive, without the Chinese government handpicking finalists beforehand. In response, the Chinese government has turned to censorship in attempt to control the spread of these protests, by restricting public access to social media in the form of Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter. However, there is at least one outlet that has not been shut-down. FireChat is a free chatting app made by Open Garden that has been downloaded more than 210,000 times over a 2 day period and is being used by Hong Kong protesters to communicate with one another. FireChat circumvents censorship by using a mesh network. This framework does not require a central internet provider for all users, but rather, where one user is connected to the internet, this can be “shared” between devices. Each device is a “node” that can itself, share data with the rest of the network without the internet. In addition, the app allows users to remain anonymous, which protects the identities of the protesters. FireChat has already been used by protesters in the past, including among Taiwanese protesters last march. The Hong Kong protesters have followed suit in harnessing technology to meet the goals of social activists, in what Howard Rheingold dubs the work of a “smart mob.”
On a fundamental level, the nature of this technology reflects the underlying reason behind the protest itself.

One of the tenants of democracy is the right to free speech, and FireChat is enabling these protesters to embody that which they hope to see reflected in the electoral process.

Moreover, not only has FireChat leveraged the message around which the protesters are organizing, but it has also brought attention to the ways that the Chinese government has used censorship in the past. This sort of negative publicity will likely play a part in the negotiations in the upcoming days between government authorities and protesters, further underscoring the group’s pro-democracy message.
Inasmuch as FireChat has promoted the protester’s campaign, the app has garnered criticism too. The security of FireChat has been contested by some who believe that it may not be secure from spyware, particularly the sort coming from governmental authorities. In addition, FireChat may gain the attention of news media who seek to use these self-reports as a “real-time” report of the event, particularly where other sources of information related to this event may be censored. This comes with it, the potential for misleading or false reporting from these sources. Perhaps a means by which different people to corroborate a single account through the app could improve the accuracy of these reports.
Another opportunity for software-developers to create protester-oriented technologies may be in developing the app such that protestors can surveil the very authorities who are trying to censor their protests. For example, an app that includes a mapping option, much like the technologies used by Occupy Wall Street, could help geographically monitor the presence of authorities to warn protesters in the area. However, this may indirectly reveal the geographic location of the individual providing the mapping information, which could endanger these mappers, even though this information may serve to protect other activists.