Hong Kong

Hong Kong Protesters Combat the Surveillance State

Encryption, other privacy measures, and decentralization have made the protest movement possible.


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A major priority of the protest movement that has consumed Hong Kong for the past three and a half months has been to thwart the surveillance apparatus that's virtually everywhere. Demonstrators have felled camera poles with chainsaws, spray-painted security camera lenses, used green lasers to destroy sensors, and shielded themselves with umbrellas while marching through the streets.

"I think there a growing concern [in Hong Kong] about surveillance, and this [is] totally understandable because there's a total lack of trust in the government with this whole saga over the last several months," says Charles Mok, a legislator representing the city's technology sector.

Though Hong Kong is politically autonomous under the "one country, two systems" model, local authorities have wired up the city, enabling them to keep an eye on every corner of public life—and protesters suspect they may be sharing that information with the Chinese government.

Hong Kong officials deny that cameras on the top of the city's so-called Smart Lampposts  feed location or facial recognition data to Beijing, but that may be a lie. Activists with the political organization Demosisto analyzed the internal components of one of these cameras and found an ethernet switch that could conceivably connect to the mainland's surveillance network. They also found components inside that were manufactured by a known supplier of surveillance technology to the Chinese government.

Many demonstrators use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to access the internet, and they communicate through Telegram, which fully encrypts their messages.

"Without safe communication, I don't think this revolution [could] last for that long," says Wincent Hung, founder of Genesis Block, a Hong Kong–based cryptocurrency exchange. "The government [could] track down everybody very, very easily if there [were] no encryption in this revolution."

Demonstrators are also refraining from using their credit cards or the digital payments system Octopus, which is an option in Hong Kong's public transit system and most stores.

"People are quite wary about cybersecurity and their digital footprints," says Amon Liu, an activist with Demosisto. "All their personal information [have been used] for past prosecutions by the police. So that's why they use cash this time."

To discuss strategy, demonstrators use LIHKG, a social media site that allows anonymous posting and is known as the Reddit of Hong Kong.

They've also created decentralized networks for sharing information through AirDrop, a function on the iPhone that transfers data directly to another person via Bluetooth without a third-party intermediary.

"This is a movement that is totally leaderless and decentralized," says Denise Ho, a Hong Kong–based singer and pro-democracy activist. "[Youth activists] have used…the tools on the Internet to really find a newer way to organize this sort of movement and to really sustain it in the longer term." 

The protest movement's unofficial motto is "be water," a Bruce Lee phrase that's meant to convey that in battle, a more fluid and malleable adversary is harder to stop.

A major factor motivating the protesters in their fight to maintain autonomy from mainland China is the surveillance apparatus that the Beijing government imposes on its own citizens. Under the "social credit system," for example, individuals are rated for good behavior and a bad score can impede their ability to travel, attend the best schools, or get hired for the best jobs.

The Hong Kong government has stopped answering protesters' demands, and the conflict grew more acrimonious on October 1, after a police officer shot and injured an 18-year-old demonstrator who had attempted to hit him with a rod. Last week, the government announced a ban on wearing face masks in the streets.

"It has escalated to a point where people are realizing what we need is a political reform in the whole Hong Kong legislative system," says Ho. "And also, of course, the communist government is not backing down either. So we are preparing ourselves for an even longer fight."

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Edwin Lee.

Photo credit: Aaron Guy Leroux/Sipa USA/Newscom

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