Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong are using mass chat app FireChat to coordinate even without a cellular or Wi-Fi connection. But using apps from unknown sources could pose privacy issues, or worse.
According to a South China Morning Post report from last week, Occupy Central activists began receiving text messages on their phones directing them to download an Android app that would supposedly help them coordinate their actions. “Check out this Android app designed by Code4HK for the coordination of Occupy Central,” said the message, with Code4HK being a group of activist developers supporting more transparent governance in Hong Kong.
The app, dubbed code4HK, raised suspicions among activists due to the extensive list of permissions it requests, including access to call logs, text messages, microphone, and even GPS location. Code4HK denied that it created the app, and, on closer examination, it was revealed that the app actually connects to a server in South Korea, and that the server’s logs are written in simplified Chinese, which is predominantly used in mainland China.
It’s not clear if the fake app is commercial spyware designed to ride the wave of attention Occupy Central is getting, or something more insidious. State-sponsored Chinese hackers have long been known to infiltrate Beijing’s adversaries, and Hong Kong is probably high on the communist regime’s list of concerns right now.
But for Hong Kong’s young, tech-savvy residents, technology is also bringing a way to stay on top of the often chaotic conditions of street protests. According to Tech In Asia, FireChat, a mass chatting app that lets users connect over Bluetooth and Apple’s Multipeer Connectivity Framework, in addition to Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity, has exploded in popularity over the past days. In 22 hours, FireChat gained 100,000 users from Hong Kong, with over 30,000 users logging in simultaneously at peak time.
Thanks to FireChat, protesters can stay off cell networks that can be easily monitored, and keep in touch even when networks become overloaded (or purposely jammed). The downside, protesters told Tech In Asia, is that FireChat’s mesh network chatrooms are rife with rumors and disinformation.