Protesters gather outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on July 1, 2019, on the 22nd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China. Photo: AFP

When graffiti was sprayed and a British-era Hong Kong colonial flag was unfurled in the chamber of the city’s Legislative Council after a forced entry on the 22nd anniversary of the handover of the city to China, many across the world felt a significant moment had been reached.

Locally, opinions have been divided, and confusion remains over who committed the breach into the legislature. Was it emboldened ordinary protesters from the estimated 550,000 who had marched on July 1, or a small radical minority, or other parties working undercover on a hidden agenda?

The answer may never be known. But what July 1 in Hong Kong did reveal was more evidence of a leaderless movement run with decentralized principles using technology, apps and even verbal one-to-one communication.

Telegram usage in Hong Kong has sharply increased as a means of communication and a platform for the protest movement to vote to decide its next moves. The movement uses Google Maps to share information about everything from supply points to police lines and debates online using local forum LIHKG or Twitter and Reddit to discuss the issues motivating protesters and keep up with live happenings on site.

But when the police began to move in on the morning of July 2, the main warning to protestors came from … a good old fashioned loudspeaker announcement.

Tech rules the roost at protests

Days earlier in Hong Kong, the impact of decentralization and technology was also very evident. In the run-up to the G20 summit in Osaka, protesters rallied in the city’s Central district where they called on world leaders to support their opposition to the planned legislation that would allow the extradition of criminals from Hong Kong to mainland China.

Thousands of people gathered on the evening of June 26, two days before the G20 was due to start, and seemingly arrived out of nowhere as the rally was arranged with little publicity, on even the main social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, but preferring decentralized communication methods instead.

This, thinks the movement, will allow protesters to largely avoid the widespread arrests that followed the personality-led 2014 Umbrella Movement that tackled issues related to Hong Kong’s democratic future.

The Telegram platform has become the focus of the Anti-Extradition movement because of its strong privacy functions, including secret chats using end-to-end encryption that leave no trace on Telegram’s servers and support self-destructing messages that don’t allow forwarding.

The so-called “secret chats” are also supposedly not stored on the Telegram cloud servers and can only be accessed via their devices of origin. Messages, photos, videos and files can also be set to self-destruct in a set amount of time and even accounts can also be set to self-destruct mode as well.

The app’s group chat functions, however, are less secure and are open to flaws such as infiltration by outside parties and screenshot capture as they do not appear to have the same level of encryption, and therefore protection, as the secret chat functions. 

It is a loophole that led to the arrest of 22-year-old student Ivan Ip at the beginning of June on public nuisance charges, who according to Hong Kong police’s Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau, had allegedly been the administrator of a 30,000-strong Hong Kong Telegram group.

Still, the social media network has remained instrumental in disseminating information to both protesters on the frontlines and people in the city in general, many of whom are hiding their identities and now actively prevent anyone but the press from taking photos at protests.

On Telegram they are using non-descript usernames, opting out of the platform’s “last seen” function, encrypting phones and using secondary passwords. Many are also deleting the China-based WeChat app, that may be offering windows of surveillance to authorities, are using supposedly secure VPN internet connections and running phones that use anonymous prepaid “burner” SIM cards.

This heightened state of awareness amongst protesters, about being digitally watched, was raised when the Hong Kong Hospital Authority was accused in the middle of June of leaking data of injured protesters to the police.

It is for these reasons that Telegram has become part walkie talkie for directing action on site and also the “town hall” forum that disseminates information about everything from future protests to primers on issues related to the movement. In theory, it cannot be muted, unless by brute force and, on June 12, during a city-wide strike that resulted in tear gas flooding Hong Kong’s financial center, Telegram suffered a cyber attack that the platform’s founder, Pavel Durov, claimed originated from China.

But, since then, there have been more signs that other methods are being used. On the ground, it is the simple use of ‘analog’ communications such as hand signals. Others have said they are receiving information anonymously in public places through Apple’s Airdrop function, that allows users to send information to others who are connected in the vicinity.

FireChat, which runs on a so-called “mesh” peer-to-peer network via Bluetooth and Wifi, and bypasses commercial mobile internet connections, is also being used by protesters.

The protest movement has now adopted the famous “Be as water, my friend” quote from local 1970s kungfu superstar Bruce Lee to emphasize this amorphic, shapeless methodology. After the storming of the legislature, an uneasy silence has fallen in Hong Kong with neither government or protesters seeming to know what the next move will be from either side.

But it seems a near certainty that the protests will spring up again. And when they do, the world won’t know about them until they have happened.

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