An old Chinese tale tells of a crafty and perhaps phony arms-seller who claims his spear can penetrate anything and that his shield can resist anything. A wisecracking customer comes by and pits the spear against the shield, posing a befuddling paradoxical conundrum to the seller. In Hong Kong, we see technology as both the spear and the shield.
The protests have been monitored by one of China’s most infamous security measures – facial recognition. China’s all-pervasive high-mounted surveillance cameras monitor its citizens, feedback-looping through a centralized civil-criminal database, augmented with methodologies such as machine learning, and integrated with its social-credit systems and blacklists. These dystopian-sounding measures, although ubiquitous, came to light with its use in rounding up Uighurs.
The system has proved to be immensely efficient, relentless and near-infallible, having helped prevent criminal acts and terror incidents. But it has also been criticized as being a tool to crack down on dissent.
With the authorities and police using facial recognition to identify and earmark perpetrators and dissidents in the four-month-long demonstrations, the protesters devised a tech-savvy yet ergonomic and readily available way to counter it. Amid the clamor and chaos, in any footage of the demonstrations, one can observe bright flashing lights. Many of the demonstrators can be seen brandishing laser torches in a seemingly haphazard fashion. This optical disarray serves a twofold purpose – it obviously sensorially imbalances, overloads and disorients the police personnel, compromising their efficiency, and impedes systematized action, while it also deters the facial-recognition technology installed in the sentry cameras.
It is an effective bypass to circumvent the mass surveillance, as the laser’s intense beam is coherent over large distances, and when rapidly fluctuating disrupts a camera’s focus. A laser can also, under the right circumstances and aim, disable a camera’s sensors permanently.
Besides lasers, cruder evasive measures such as umbrellas and balaclavas have also been extensively employed to prevent recording of incriminating footage producible as substantial evidence against the suspect. These manual deterrents also offer marginal shielding from the teargas deployed by the security forces.
The authorities have accused demonstrators of aiming laser torches at the eyes of police personnel, impairing their vision, and potentially dealing lasting ocular damage. However, protesters have largely denied offensive usage of this technique and advocated its use as a defensive and evasive measure only.
It is also widely speculated that unlike certain cameras in mainland China, the police in Hong Kong are technically ill-equipped and currently do not possess real-time image-processing capabilities, implying the cameras can be tampered with before the police can analyze the footage. This provides scope for protesters to target the camera sensors.
Late-night laser shows have also been organized as a lighter take on mass mobilization, free expression and defiance. This passive way of voicing protests experienced occasional spurts of mischief, such as trying – or pretending – to set newspapers and vegetation ablaze. Hundreds of protesters armed with laser lights gathered by the Hong Kong Space Museum after dark to protest against the arrest of student leader Keith Fong, who was apprehended on the grounds of bringing 10 laser pointers to the protest, which the police deemed “offensive weapons.” This followed a similar laser show at the Sham Shui Po Police Station, which bourgeoned the next day into a much larger display outside the planetarium, rivaling and likely outshining any rave.
Mocking and teasing the Chinese police, who had earlier staged a public illustration of how dangerous lasers could be by demonstrating their capability to burn paper upon prolonged exposure, the crowd performed rowdy theatrics, yelling “Fire, fire!” while comically pretending to set nearby buildings and trees ablaze with the lasers.