Hong Kong Anti-Government Protesters Avoid Government Snooping With Special App

Protesters hold up the mobile phone lights in front of police headquarters in Hong Kong, Friday, June 21, 2019. More than 1,000 protesters blocked Hong Kong police headquarters into the evening Friday, while others took over major streets as the tumult over the city's future showed no signs of abating. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

Hong Kong – The ongoing political unrest in Hong Kong has led to the government censoring the internet and preventing communication by SMS or other network-related apps. However Forbes reports that protesters in Hong Kong seem to have found a messaging app which the government cannot block, since it does not require a persistent managed network.

The app, San Fransisco startup Bridgefy’s messaging app, is a peer-to-peer mesh broadcasting network which does not require the internet for communication. Rather, smartphones use short-range Bluetooth connections to form their own network independent of the carrier cell masts.

The app can connect people via standard Bluetooth across an entire city. Chatting is speediest with people who are close, of course, within a hundred meters (330 feet), but one can also chat with people farther away. To chat over longer distances, messages simply jump between nearby users — creating a mesh network — until they reach the intended target. What’s more, the people in the middle don’t have access to your messages, have to perform any action whatsoever, or have to be in your contacts list.

In recent weeks, the app has seen download numbers soar due to the political crisis in the city. According to Apptopia, an app metrics company, downloads are up almost 4,000% over the past 60 days and it appears to have become the most popular offline messaging app, replacing Firechat, which became popular during the 2014 pro-democracy protests.

Authorities in China will have difficulty shutting down the app, since it employs multiple paths for communicating because messages can make their way around any device on the network. Yet there are still risks for protesters, since police could conceivably sign up for Bridgefy and flood the network with confusing and fake messages which could mislead and ensnare protesters. For example, mass messages could tell protestors to organize in a particular location, one where authorities are lying in wait for them.

Moreover, the main problem with communicating on the app is that one cannot be sure of the identity of the person one is communicating with, since the messages are bounced through unknown third-party phones in the vicinity. Theoretically protesters could use some form of encryption or create a code with which they connect with one another, but without any manager supervising communication it would be difficult to authenticate the sender.

The recent wave of anti-government protests in Hong Kong which began in early June were sparked by a bill (since suspended, but not withdrawn) that would allow people accused of crimes against mainland China to be extradited. At present, the former British colony enjoys a special status that grants people rights and freedom not seen in mainland China, but protesters are wary of an erosion in that special status. They demand that authorities formally withdraw the now-abandoned extradition bill, set up an inquiry commission to investigate police brutality in tackling the protests, exonerate those who have been arrested during previous protests, and stop characterizing the June protests as “riots.”

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