Surveillance Fears Shadow Hong Kong Protests

Surveillance Fears Shadow Hong Kong Protests

Last Sunday saw as many as a million people march against proposed changes to the Hong Kong’s extradition law that critics fear would break down the “firewall” between the territory’s legal system and the mainland’s. That demonstration was followed by smaller protests on Wednesday which aimed, so far successfully, to derail the legislative debate process ahead of the amendments’ adoption. This resistance has attracted inevitable comparisons with the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014. While its influence on the opposition to the extradition amendments is clear, observers have noted that Wednesday’s protests in particular were more heated than those in 2014, and many of their participants more anxious. While the Umbrella Movement was an optimistic push to win new freedoms, resistance to the extradition amendments is widely seen as a desperate last stand to protect those at risk. Relations between police and protesters have soured in the aftermath of the earlier demonstrations, and this year’s take place in the absence of many key figures from before. 2014 protest leader Joshua Wong, for example, wrote an op-ed on the current protests from prison.

One response to the Umbrella Movement’s judicial decapitation has been a radical decentralization of the protests, facilitated by message groups and online forums. From Alice Su at The Los Angeles Times:

Hong Kong’s protesters had mobilized on Wednesday as if they’d been trained for years. Anyone who needed a helmet, mask, or umbrella would yell to the sky. Those around them would stop, passing the message instantly through the crowds with unified chants and matching hand motions: patting their heads for a helmet, cupping their eyes for goggles, rolling their arms for cling wrap, which they were using to protect exposed skin from tear gas and pepper spray.

An outsider might assume there must be some administrative genius at the core, directing the tens of thousands of protesters who surrounded the legislative building to prevent discussion of an extradition bill that — if approved — would send people to China at its request.

But Hong Kong activism has evolved.

[…] “We are just one of the participants. It’s leaderless, autonomous,” said Nathan Law, 25, founding chairman of Demosisto and a former legislator who was also disqualified for the way he took his oath.

[…] “People are receiving information through social platforms, Telegram channels, online forums, and they decide by themselves [what to do],” Law said. “People are voting on the internet.” [Source]

The New York Times’ Paul Mozur and Alexandra Stevenson reported on Thursday, though, that technology is cutting both ways:

Past the tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray, the Hong Kong protests are also unfolding on a largely invisible, digital front. Protesters and police officers alike have brought a new technological savvy to the standoff.

[…] Many of the protesters are college-aged and digitally savvy. They took pains to keep from being photographed or digitally tracked. To go to and from the protests, many stood in lines to buy single-ride subway tickets instead of using their digital payment cards, which can be tracked. Some confronting the police covered their faces with hats and masks, giving them anonymity as well as some protection from tear gas.

On Wednesday, several protesters shouted at bystanders taking photos and selfies, asking those who were not wearing press passes to take pictures only of people wearing masks. Later, a scuffle broke out between protesters and bystanders who were taking photos on a bridge over the main protest area.

For some, the most flagrant symbol of defiance came from showing one’s face.

On Wednesday, as demonstrators prepared for a potential charge by the police, a drone flew overhead. The protesters warned one another about photos from above, but Anson Chan, a 21-year-old recent college graduate, said she was unconcerned about leaving her face exposed, potentially revealing her identity. [Source]

Quartz’s Mary Hui noted protesters’ use of cash-bought tickets in a series of tweets and a subsequent article:

Local Hong Kong residents almost never use these ticketing machines these days to buy single-journey tickets. For starters, everyone has a rechargeable smart card, called the Octopus card, that is widely used across the city to pay for everything from transport to meals and groceries. Purchasing a physical ticket not only takes time, it also costs more than the equivalent trip paid for with the Octopus card. It ends up being mostly tourists who use the ticketing machines.

[…] “We’re afraid of having our data tracked,” the female protester said. She added that during the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, this kind of ticket-buying in cash wasn’t as prevalent. But five years on, people knew better and were wary.

[…] The Hong Kong protesters’ behavior raises questions about data privacy, surveillance, and the dangers of “smart cities” as companies and governments sweep up ever-increasing troves of personal data. The protesters’ deliberate decision to use cash, despite its seeming inconvenience, also shows how increasingly cashless societies can present dire privacy concerns. Cryptocurrency advocates argue that electronic cash, such as Bitcoin, offers the solution for private digital payments. [Source]

AP’s Christopher Bodeen also reported on the new wariness, especially among the young:

Agnes, a second-year college student who declined to give her surname, said she donned a face mask as soon as she left a subway train in the downtown Admiralty district to join Wednesday’s overnight protest by pro-democracy demonstrators.

“Everybody coming out is wearing masks because you don’t know what people will do with the information,” Agnes said as friends nodded in agreement. None of them would give their names, saying they worried about how school authorities would react if Hong Kong or China’s central government asked for information about them.

[…] Older protesters professed less concern about being caught on video at Wednesday’s demonstration, saying they were already secure in their lives and careers.

“I don’t give it too much thought,” said Andy Lau, an engineering professor at a Hong Kong polytechnic who was passing out leaflets calling for an end to police attacks and the resignation of the current Hong Kong government amid a crowd of protesters on a pedestrian bridge opposite the Legislative Council.

However, Lau said younger protesters were well advised to guard their identities and personal data if they want to join the demonstrations. [Source]

Inkstone News’ Alan Wong discussed the changes since 2014 in a Twitter thread:

See Twitter for the rest of the thread.

AFP’s Jacques Clement also discussed this shift:

The optimism that once defined Hong Kong’s pro-democracy rallies has been replaced by desperation and foreboding as young protesters flood the streets again, this time ready to fight in what feels like a last-ditch battle for the city.

[…] Yu, a 24-year-old protester wearing a mask to hide her identity, explained how it had come to this.

“Those who did 2014 know that peaceful methods are not working,” she told AFP, referring to the failure of the movement back then to win any concessions from Beijing.

“Even a million go on protest and nothing happened,” she added, referencing the government’s refusal to be swayed by the city’s largest protest since its 1997 handover to China.

But she wasn’t keen on the confrontations either. “Violence is not working,” she said. “What can I do?” [Source]

See more on the causes of the protests and the changes since 2014, via CDT.

Anxiety among younger participants has been further stoked by arrests, as The New York Times’ liveblog on the protests noted:

Max Chan, a member of the Current Affairs Committee of the H.K.U.S.U. Council, said that the student union could confirm that three Hong Kong University students had been arrested, two on charges related to loitering where tens of thousands of people were protesting on Wednesday. The third was arrested on Sunday.

In an interview, the pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui said his office had received unverified information on Thursday evening that the police were planning to search Simon K.Y. Lee hall.

“We cannot confirm that the information was right,” he said, adding that his office was trying to learn more. “The students are terrified,” said Mr. Hui, who spent two hours talking to them in the hall.

As students huddled in small groups behind a line of reporters, a worried professor, Sharon Hom, looked on. “This is outrageous that they are coming to the universities at night,” said Ms. Hom, a visiting professor and the executive director at Human Rights in China, a nongovernmental organization.

She described scenes of clashes between students and the police at Wednesday’s protests as upsetting, saying, “They treated the students like criminals.” [Source]

Mozur and Stevenson’s NYT article highlighted the arrest at home on Tuesday night of Ivan Ip, the 22-year-old administrator of a 20,000-strong chat group on the messaging app Telegram. The service bills itself as highly secure, and although some experts have expressed reservations about these claims, it has been widely adopted by Hong Kong activists, not least for its support of very large chat groups. Global Voices translated a report on Ip’s arrest from the Stand News:

On June 11, authorities arrested an administrator of a Telegram group called “International Waters” (公海總谷) and charged him with “conspiring to commit a public nuisance,” the police has confirmed to The Stand News.

The administrator is Ivan Ip, a 22-year-old student who has agreed to speak with The Stand News over the telephone. He said that while he was in custody police forced him to unlock his cellphone and export the list of the group’s members — which numbers between 20,000 and 30,000 people.

[…] Mr. Ip has confirmed that the whole list of the group’s members, as well as all the messages exchanged in the secure chat, have been exposed to the police. After his arrest, the administrators of “International Waters” have decided to shut down the group out of security concerns.

The 22-year-old student has told The Stand News that he hasn’t attended any of the recent protests and that he was shocked that the police would arrest him for merely sharing information. [Source]

On Wednesday, as protesters used the service to coordinate, Telegram announced that it was experiencing a “powerful” DDOS or Distributed Denial Of Service attack. (The term describes a bombardment by fake internet traffic intended to overwhelm a site or service and deny access to genuine users.) Macquarie University’s Adam Ni commented on Twitter that “I saw in real time how the message flow slowed to almost a halt,” adding that “this, combined with misinformation, I think had a big effect on the coordination” of the protests. The DDOS compounded existing connectivity issues caused by network congestion in the crowded protest area. Telegram founder Pavel Durov wrote that the attack fit an established pattern:

Telegram is not the only apparent target of this kind of attack:

Meanwhile, a recirculated South China Morning Post report from last December has sparked concern that a visit to Xinjiang by Hong Kong anti-terror police, ostensibly to learn rapid incident response methods, may be a sign that HK authorities may have been importing ultra-repressive security measures from the region. University of Washington anthropologist Darren Byler, who examined the “new form of terror capitalism” behind the surveillance and mass detentions in Xinjiang in a recent essay at Logic Magazine, wrote on Twitter that some elements may indeed be adopted, but that Xinjiang’s infrastructure in its full, extreme form would be difficult to replicate in Hong Kong.

The mainland is not the only source of tools used against the protesters. Both British tear gas and a German armored car appear to have been sold to Hong Kong police since 2014.


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