A man walks to work as pro-democracy demonstrators sleep on the road in the occupied areas surrounding the government complex in Hong Kong on Monday, October 6.
A ray of sunlight bathes sleeping protesters as they occupy a major highway in Hong Kong on October 6.
People take an escalator to work as protesters sleep on October 6.
The statue “Umbrella Man,” by the Hong Kong artist known as Milk, stands at a pro-democracy protest site in the Admiralty district on October 6.
People walk to work on a main road in the occupied areas of Hong Kong on October 6.
Police officers remove barriers outside government offices in Hong Kong on Sunday, October 5.
Student protesters carry a barrier to block a street leading to the protest site on October 5.
Pro-democracy demonstrators occupy the streets near government headquarters on October 5.
Pro-democracy demonstrators surround police October 5 in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong.
A pro-democracy protester holds on to a barrier as he and others defend a barricade from attacks by rival protest groups in the Mong Kok district on Saturday, October 4.
Pro-democracy student protesters pin a man to the ground after an assault during a scuffle with local residents in Mong Kok on October 4.
Pro-democracy protesters raise their arms in a sign of nonviolence as they protect a barricade from rival protest groups in the Mong Kok district on October 4.
A pro-Beijing activist holds up blue ribbons for anti-Occupy Central protestors to collect as pro-government speeches are made in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong on October 4.
A man sits in front of a barricade built by pro-democracy protesters on October 4 in the Kowloon district.
Thousands of pro-democracy activists attend a rally on the streets near government headquarters on October 4 in Hong Kong.
A group of men in masks fight with a man who tried to stop them from removing barricades from a pro-democracy protest area in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong on Friday, October 3.
Police raise hands against protesters as an ambulance tries to leave the compound of the chief executive office in Hong Kong on October 3.
A protester tries to negotiate with angry residents trying to remove barricades blocking streets in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay on October 3. Large crowds opposed to the pro-democracy movement gathered to clear the area.
Pro-democracy demonstrators protect a barricade from “anti-Occupy” crowds in Hong Kong on October 3.
A man shouts at a pro-democracy demonstrator on October 3.
Police try to pry a man from a fence guarded by pro-democracy demonstrators on October 3.
Pro-democracy demonstrators sleep on the street outside a government complex in Hong Kong on Thursday, October 2.
As the sun rises, a protester reads during a sit-in blocking the entrance to the chief executive’s office on October 2. Demonstrators are angry at China’s decision to allow only Beijing-vetted candidates to run in the city’s elections for chief executive in 2017.
Yellow ribbons, a symbol of the protests in Hong Kong, are tied to a fence as police and security officers stand guard at the government headquarters on October 2.
Protesters confront police outside the government complex in Hong Kong on October 2.
Protesters camp out in a street in Hong Kong on Wednesday, October 1.
Founder of the student pro-democracy group Scholarism, Joshua Wong, center, stands in silent protest with supporters at the flag-raising ceremony at Golden Bauhinia Square in Hong Kong on October 1.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive C.Y. Leung attends a flag raising ceremony to mark the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China on October 1.
A pro-democracy activist shouts slogans on a street near the government headquarters on Wednesday, October 1.
Hong Kong police stand guard outside the flag-raising ceremony October 1.
Pro-democracy demonstrators gather for a third night in Hong Kong on Tuesday, September 30.
Protesters sing songs and wave their cell phones in the air after a massive thunderstorm passed over the Hong Kong Government Complex on September 30.
Protesters take part in a rally on a street outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on September 30.
Student activists rest on a road in Hong Kong on September 30, near the government headquarters where pro-democracy activists have gathered.
A pro-democracy demonstrator guards a bus covered with messages of support in Hong Kong on September 30.
Protesters sleep on the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex at sunrise on September 30.
Protesters hold up their cell phones in a display of solidarity during a protest outside the Legislative Council headquarters in Hong Kong on Monday, September 29.
Protesters put on goggles and wrap themselves in plastic on September 29 after hearing a rumor that police were coming with tear gas.
Police officers stand off with protesters next to the Hong Kong police headquarters on September 29.
A man helps protesters use a makeshift ladder to climb over concrete street barricades on September 29.
Riot police fire tear gas on student protesters occupying streets around government buildings in Hong Kong on September 29.
Police officers rest after protests on September 29.
Pro-democracy protesters argue with a man, left, who opposes the occupation of Nathan Road in Hong Kong on September 29.
Pro-democracy protesters sit in a road as they face off with local police on September 29.
Pro-democracy protesters rest around empty buses as they block Nathan Road in Hong Kong on September 29. Multiple bus routes have been suspended or diverted.
Police walk down a stairwell as demonstrators gather outside government buildings in Hong Kong on September 29.
Stacks of umbrellas are ready for protesters to use as shields against pepper spray on September 29.
Protesters turn the Chinese flag upside-down on September 29 outside a commercial building near the main Occupy Central protest area in Hong Kong.
Protesters occupy a main road in the Central district of Hong Kong after riot police used tear gas against them on Sunday, September 28.
Demonstrators disperse as tear gas is fired during a protest on September 28. There is an “optimal amount of police officers dispersed” around the scene, a Hong Kong police representative said.
Police use pepper spray and tear gas against demonstrators September 28. The protests, which have seen thousands of students in their teens and 20s take to the streets, swelled in size over the weekend.
Riot police clash with protesters on September 28.
Police and protesters clash during a tense standoff with thousands of student demonstrators, recently joined by the like-minded Occupy Central movement, on September 28.
Benny Tai, center, founder of the Occupy Central movement, raises a fist after announcing the group would join the students during a demonstration outside government headquarters in Hong Kong on September 28.
Pro-democracy activist and former legislator Martin Lee wears goggles and a mask to protect against pepper spray on September 28.
A pro-democracy activist shouts at police officers behind a fence with yellow ribbons on September 28.
A sign for the Hong Kong central government offices has been crossed out with red tape by democracy activists on September 28.
Pro-democracy protesters gather near government headquarters on September 29.
Protesters gather during a demonstration outside the headquarters of the Legislative Counsel on September 28 as calls for Beijing to grant the city universal suffrage grow louder and more fractious.
Protesters tie up barricades on September 28 during a demonstration outside the headquarters of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong.
An injured protester is tended to after clashing with riot police outside Hong Kong government complex on Saturday, September 27.
Riot police use pepper spray on pro-democracy activists who forced their way into the Hong Kong government headquarters during a demonstration on September 27.
People watch from on high as pro-democracy demonstrators are surrounded by police after storming a courtyard outside Hong Kong’s legislative headquarters on Friday, September 26.
Students march to Government House in Hong Kong on Thursday, September 25.
- Students in the massive protests in Hong Kong want representative democracy
- Jeff Yang: These protesters may be the most sophisticated and technologically savvy ever
- He says Chinese authorities are blocking images and creating apps that trick protesters
- Yang: Smartphone a great tool for populist empowerment but it can easily be used against us
Editor’s note: Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and can be heard frequently on radio as a contributor to shows such as PRI’s “The Takeaway” and WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” He is the author of “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action” and editor of the graphic novel anthologies “Secret Identities” and “Shattered.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) — The massive protests in Hong Kong took an ugly turn on Friday when students pressing for representative democracy clashed with opponents, prompting a breakdown of talks aimed at defusing the crisis.
This negativity followed a week of remarkably peaceful civil disobedience in what has been dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution,” after the widely shared image of a man defiantly holding up an umbrella in a haze of police tear gas fired to disperse the tens of thousands of activists crowding the city’s main government and business thoroughfare, the region referred to as Central.
But protesters shrugged off the gas assault as if it had never happened. Behind the barricades, they studied for exams, coordinated the cleanup and recycling of trash generated by the crowd, and jerry-rigged guerrilla charging stations for the voluminous array of devices the demonstrators are using as part of the sophisticated war they’re waging on the virtual front, wielding the digital-age weapons of image feeds, live streaming video and ceaseless social media updates.
The Umbrella Revolution is hardly the first protest to harness the power of technology to coordinate activities and broadcast messages, but it’s almost certainly the most sophisticated.
Andrew Lih, a journalism professor at American University, discussed the infrastructure the activists have adopted in an article for Quartz, a system that incorporates fast wireless broadband, multimedia smartphones, aerial drones and mobile video projectors, cobbled together by pro-democracy geektivists like the ad-hoc hacker coalition Code4HK.
Hong Kong clashes continue in Mong Kok
Hong Kong police push through barricade
Given this remarkable show of force by the crowd under the Umbrella, it’s not surprising that Beijing has moved quickly to prevent transmissions from reaching the mainland, blocking Chinese access to Instagram, where images and videos from the demonstrations and police crackdowns are regularly being posted, and banning all posts on popular messaging sites like Weibo and WeChat carrying keywords that refer to the protests.
Activists have fought back by downloading the peer-to-peer “mesh messaging” app FireChat — which allows communication among nearby users even when centralized mobile services are unavailable by linking smartphones directly to one another via Bluetooth and wifi — in the hundreds of thousands, and by creating an elaborate system of numerical hashtags to stand in for forbidden terms.
For example, #689 is the codename for Hong Kong chief executive C.Y. Leung, referring to the number of votes he received in his selection as the region’s highest government representative, a scant majority of the 1,200 members of the the Communist Party-approved nominating committee. #8964 references Beijing’s brutal June 4, 1989, crackdown on student democracy activists in Tiananmen Square, which casts a looming shadow over the Occupy Central demonstrations.
These strategies seem to have prompted the Chinese authorities to resort to new and more insidious tactics. Links — seemingly posted by Code4HK — have begun popping up on social media, inviting users to download a new app that allows for secure coordination of protest activities.
Instead, clicking the link downloads a Trojan horse that gives its developers — presumed by some security experts to be “red hat’ hackers working with support from the Chinese government — open access to the messages, calls, contacts, location and even the bank information and passwords of those naive enough to download it.
That’s a harsh lesson not just for those living under authoritarian regimes, but for us citizens of nominally free and democratic societies as well.
The smartphone is by far the most formidable tool for populist empowerment ever invented, turning individual human beings into mobile broadcast platforms and decentralized mobs into self-organizing bodies. But it’s also jarringly easy for these devices to be used against us.
Here in the United States, revelations of the existence of massive government surveillance programs like the NSA’s PRISM have caused an uproar among digital libertarians. Likewise, criminal smartphone hacking and cloud cracking has led to the release of celebrity nude photos and sex videos, to the humiliation of those who thought them private.
The response from leading smartphone developers like Apple and Google has been to announce new methods of locking and encrypting information to make it harder for individuals, businesses or governments to gain access to our personal information.
But even as they add these fresh layers of security, they continue to extend the reach of these devices into our lives, with services that integrate frictionless financial transactions and home systems management into our smartphones, and wearable accessories that capture and transmit our very heartbeats.
Imagine how much control commercial exploiters, criminals — or overreaching law enforcement — might have if it gained access to all these features. The upshot is that we increasingly have to take matters into our own hands (and handsets), policing our online behavior and resisting the temptation to click on risky links.
It may be worth exploring innovative new tools that offer unblockable or truly secure alternatives to traditional communications, like the free VPN browser extension Hola, which evades global digital boundaries to Web access; open-source projects like Serval and Commotion, which are attempting to develop standards for mesh connectivity that route around the need for commercial mobile phone networks; and apps like RedPhone and Signal, which offer free, worldwide end-to-end encrypted voice conversations.
Most of these are works in progress. But as technology becomes ever more deeply embedded into our lifestyles, keeping our digital identities secure and private is becoming increasingly critical. And as the protests in Hong Kong have shown, the only solution may be to use technology to defend against technology — in other words, to fight fire with FireChat.
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