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Drones & Smartphones Power Hong Kong Protests

As drones zoom above the crowds, Hong Kong protestors have been making the most of their mobile broadband connections.

Robert Clark

October 3, 2014

4 Min Read
Drones & Smartphones Power Hong Kong Protests

HONG KONG -- Those taking part in this week's widely reported Hong Kong protests have spent much of their time occupied with their smartphones, it seems.

The pro-democracy demonstrations, which have grown out of the Occupy Central movement and which have also been referred to as the Umbrella Revolution, flared up in protest against the Chinese Government's refusal to let Hong Kong select its own candidates for the 2017 leadership elections. The Chinese authorities have ruled that only "approved" candidates can stand, prompting accusations of election-fixing.

So when the protestors took to the streets more than a week ago -- the first student protestors began their demonstrations outside government buildings on September 22 -- wireless communications was one of their most important tools.

Hong Kong -- official name "Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China" -- is one of the world's most connected cities, with the fastest broadband services, three 4G networks, mobile penetration of 194% and smartphone take-up of 87% among its population of about 7.2 million.

Stand at any point in the crowd and you will see half the participants either peering or tapping into their phones, taking photos or shooting videos -- and of course taking the obligatory "selfie."

The mass protest is as much an intense information experience as a physical one: Twitter reportedly racked up 2.3 million tweets on the Hong Kong protests in just four days. Figures aren't yet available, but traffic to other platforms -- Facebook, Instagram, WeChat, Whatsapp, Weibo and Reddit -- will also have spiked this week.

Each protest movement seems to introduce a new digital star: In Iran in 2009 it was Twitter; in Egypt in 2011 it was Facebook. The Hong Kong addition to protest-tech is surely the drone, with UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) zooming between the city's famous skyscrapers, generating stunning photos and video.

App stars and security threats
It was a good week for peer-to-peer (P2P) chat app FireChat, which reported 100,000 downloads in 24 hours after one of the protest leaders recommended it. However, FireChat is an open public chatroom, and even the CEO of Open Garden, the firm behind Firechat, admits it's not secure and has worked on beefing up its protection.

Telegram, a secure cloud-based messaging app, has received positive attention. It's not P2P like Firechat, but is encrypted and offers the ability to delete chat histories.

With the action centering on the smartphone, it's no surprise to see the emergence of at least one threat aimed specifically at these protesters.

Security firm Lacoon said it had identified a rare cross-platform attack targeting both iOS and Android devices, indicating it may well be the creation of "a very large organization or nation state." Less surprisingly, it suspects that state is China.

On the other side of the fence, hacker group Anonymous, which had threatened to attack Hong Kong government websites, brought down the websites of pro-government party DAB (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong) and anti-protest group called Silent Majority.

For more coverage of the wireless networks and services market, see our mobile content channel here on Light Reading.

Hong Kong's mobile networks bent under the strain of the extra crowds, but according to social media and the operators themselves managed to keep operating.

SmarTone Telecommunications Holdings Ltd. (Hong Kong: 0315) CTO Stephen Chau said the operator had maximized capacity in the protest areas. He said users might have encountered slow data speeds around the government offices in Admiralty, scene of the biggest demonstrations, but would not have experienced "much performance impact." Another operator, Hutchison 3G HK Ltd. , gave a similar account.

The networks were at the center of one of the most chilling rumors of the week. When tear-gas canisters were flying on Sunday evening, speculation spread that the networks would be shut down. Organizers said if that happened, protesters should leave immediately.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Robert Clark

Contributing Editor, Special to Light Reading

Robert Clark is an independent technology editor and researcher based in Hong Kong. In addition to contributing to Light Reading, he also has his own blog,  Electric Speech (http://www.electricspeech.com). 

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