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.
Increasingly, at least when it comes to digital data streams like social media, the entire process, from initial data acquisition to final analytic outputs, is overseen by private companies with large portions of the analytic pipeline occurring within their own data centers with little oversight by the federal government.
"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/NewscomSubscribe to our YouTube channel.Twitter.Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes.