If China Is A Glimpse Of Our Future Surveillance Nightmare, Maybe Hong Kong Shows How To Fight It

from the minimize-your-digital-footprint dept

Techdirt has been covering the roll-out of the extraordinarily comprehensive digital surveillance systems in China for many years. It's hardly news that the Chinese authorities continue to deploy the latest technologies in order to bolster their control. Many of the same approaches to surveillance are being tried in the special administrative region of Hong Kong. A British colony for 156 years, it was handed back to China in 1997 on the understanding that there would be "one country, two systems": Hong Kong would be part of China, but it would retain its very different economic and administrative systems for at least 50 years.

Well, that was the theory. In practice, Xi Jinping is clearly unwilling to wait that long, and has been asserting more and more control over Hong Kong and its people. In 2014, this provoked the youth-led "Umbrella Movement", which sought to fight interference by the Chinese authorities in Hong Kong's political system. More recently, there have been even bigger protests over a planned law that would allow extradition from Hong Kong to China. This time, though, there has been an important development. The protesters know they are increasingly under surveillance online and in the street -- and are actively taking counter-measures:

Protesters used only secure digital messaging apps such as Telegram and otherwise went completely analogue in their movements: buying single-ride subway tickets instead of prepaid stored-value cards, forgoing credit cards and mobile payments in favor of cash and taking no selfies or photos of the chaos.

They wore face masks to obscure themselves from CCTV, fearing facial-recognition software, and bought fresh pay-as-you-go SIM cards.

As The Washington Post report explains, in addition to minimizing their digital footprints, the protesters also adopted a decentralized approach to organization. The hope is that without clear leaders, it will be harder to shut down the protests by carrying out just a few targeted arrests. The protests are continuing, so it's too early to say how well these measures have worked. Moreover, the level of surveillance in Hong Kong has not yet matched what is happening in Tibet or the huge Western region of China inhabited by the Uyghurs. Nonetheless, the conscious attempts to blunt the force of privacy-hostile digital technologies form an important testing ground for approaches that others may soon need to adopt as China-style total surveillance spreads around the world.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

Filed Under: china, hong kong, privacy, protests, surveillance


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  1. icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 26 Jun 2019 @ 5:32am

    Re:

    "Hong Kong better be careful or we may see Winnie the Pooh leading a crackdown."

    The crackdown is happening right now. It's just a question of whether emperor Xi is sending a magistrate (i.e. cops) or a general (Tiananmen square v2) to deal with the insurgency.

    But that, i believe, is why the Hong kong citizenry are taking steps to shield themselves against surveillance.
    In the end that is, of course, doomed to fail. Beijing will retrieve full dominance over hong kong and make it fall in line one way or the other. It was pretty much guaranteed that the end of the british lease meant the end of independence.

    What i really don't get is how hong kong's citizens, being of chinese origin, being neighbors to the PRC, speaking both mandarin and cantonese, and having had full access to both chinese and western media are still having any illusions about how the new leadership WILL function.

    Once the british lease expired the choice was clear. Leave hong kong, become a full card-carrying member of the PRC. Or eventually be ground to mincemeat under a chinese tank on open camera while resisting.

    Protests are a great tool of democracy.
    In China? All they'll do is give the police target practice.


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