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2 million protesters stand out to oppose a controversial extradition bill on June 16 2019 hong kong
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Hi-Tech Freedom Game in Hong Kong

Technology can oppress a people group or it can give them a voice

Satellite imagery first made the world aware of the internment camps that house the Uyhgurs of western China and technology enables the Hong Kong protesters to communicate and organize, and often frustrate surveillance.

A professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who recently visited Hong Kong reports,

I watched it all happen: The protesters would amass and the police would meet them in force. Then, in a blink, the demonstrators would move somewhere else, using the subway—when they could—to outrun the authorities. They would decide where to go next through online discussions and polls. It felt like magic.

Zeynep Tufekci, “In Hong Kong, Which Side Is Technology On?” at Wired (October 22, 2019)

But technology also prevents the citizens of mainland China from accessing any information critical of their leader or their country’s policies. Even words like “human rights” can be banned from Chinese search engines. It is through technology that people can be threatened and blackmailed if they do not show allegiance to the Chinese government. The Uyghurs’ Xinjiang province has become a true surveillance state but cameras combined with facial recognition technology are increasingly common throughout the rest of mainland China.

Hongkongers, fearing the technological oppression, have dismantled “smart” lampposts equipped with cameras. They have continued to use the now-outlawed face masks to obscure their identities from government video. And they use umbrellas to block cameras from recording protester activity.

But there is another aspect to the use of technology in Hong Kong. Singer, actress, and pro-democracy activist Denise Ho told a Global Summit in San Francisco that creativity and technology have helped unify and strengthen the Hong Kong protesters. The three main technologies that protesters have used are 1) an online Reddit-like forum, 2) live streaming to get unedited video out to the public, 3) and an encrypted anonymous messaging app.

Unlike the 2014 Umbrella Movement, today’s Hongkongers’ technology is up to the task of mobilizing a large group of people. The online forum, known as LIHKG, has better security measures than the communications tools used in 2014, which suffered due to trolls who sowed dissension. This forum requires two university emails and an IP address to participate. Users participate in decision-making by “up” or “down” votes rather than arguing endlessly among themselves.

The LIHKG forum, combined with the real-time encrypted messaging that Telegraph offers, allows protesters to move with that “magical” speed that Tufekci described. She described one remarkable act of coordination, the 30-mile long human barricade the protesters formed last August:

They used apps to coordinate in real time, getting people to move from overly populated sections of the chain to ones that were more sparse. They held hands and sang in unison. In the middle of the event, someone had the idea that they should end with everyone closing one eye, in honor of a medic who had been shot in the eye just a few days earlier. At precisely 9 pm, I watched them all close one eye, perfectly coordinated.

Zeynep Tufekci, “In Hong Kong, Which Side Is Technology On?” at Wired (October 22, 2019)

Live streaming has aided protesters in disseminating unedited videos that counter the government’s misinformation about the protests. At one point, the Chinese government claimed that a woman who was shot in the eye accepted money from protesters, implying that the whole event was staged but unedited video showed that the woman shown in a video accepting money wasn’t even the woman who was shot.

Additionally, the government has attempted to paint the protesters as rioters or terrorists. But live-streamed video shows police engaging in violent acts against the protesters. At this point, some protesters and some police, as well as vigilante groups, have become more aggressive but the situation is more complicated than the unilateral version the Chinese state media would have its citizens believe. On the global front, live streaming has been a major factor in countering the state’s attempts to control the narrative. But on the mainland, where information is censored, many people see the protesters as rebels.

While technology can “empower those who didn’t have a voice,” as Denise Ho said, it can also be used to silence and intimidate anyone who expresses sympathy for the protesters. Trey Smith, writing under a pseudonym from Hong Kong, explains that protecting one’s identity is important, which is why the facemask ban was met with such hostility. He tells of one activist he met whose family stayed in hiding for several weeks due to death threats and the spread of misinformation about him online. The authorities can also punish people by doxxing them and he observed it happening to two people he knew:

Two acquaintances have been doxxed on a website dedicated to outing the personal details of activists, journalists, politicians, and anyone else associated with Hong Kong’s ‘Revolution of Our Time.’ A police officer knocked on one of their doors to make clear he knew where they lived. Their child’s face appeared in a video posted by Chinese state media, which has also encouraged doxxing and solicited contributions from the public.

Trey Smith, “In Hong Kong, protesters fight to stay anonymous” at The Verge (October 22, 2019)

The people who were doxxed said that some of the details released could only have come from the Hong Kong government. Curiously—under the circumstances—doxxing is illegal in Hong Kong:

Under section 64(2) of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, a person commits an offence if they disclose, irrespective of intent, any personal data of a data subject obtained from a data user without the data user’s consent and the disclosure causes psychological harm to the data subject. Those found in violation face a maximum fine of HK$1 million and imprisonment for five years.

Kris Cheng, “Hong Kong Journalists Association condemns website for doxxing reporters, urges police action” at Hong Kong Free Press (September 18, 2019)

China’s actions are being scrutinized by the rest of the world. As we have seen, when doing business with China, speaking out in favor of pro-democracy protests or mentioning censored topics will bring down the ire of the Chinese government. In the end, technology, like any tool, depends on who wields it and whether they use it to help people or to control them.

Further reading on high-tech surveillance/digital oppression in China by Heather Zeiger:

Can China really silence Hong Kong?

The unadvertised cost of doing business with China: It’s a big market, with one Big Player, and some strange rules. In China, censorship includes democracy, human rights, sex, George Orwell’s 1984, and Winnie-the-Pooh (because the stuffed literary bear has been compared by some Chinese bloggers to their President). Such censorship, say many, minimizes the value of the internet.

China: What You Didn’t Say Could Be Used Against You An AI voiceprint could be used to generate words never said.

In China, high-tech racial profiling is social policy. For an ethnic minority, a physical checkup includes blood samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and voice recordings. The Chinese government seeks a database of everyone in the country, not only to track individuals but to determine the ethnicity of those who run up against the law.

The internet doesn’t free anyone by itself. China is testing 100% surveillance on the Uyghurs, a strategically critical minority.

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

Hi-Tech Freedom Game in Hong Kong