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. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2019 @ 7:33pm

    The government and private sector want to ban cash because they can't trace it. In my area, it's near impossible to get a single use public transport ticket. In many countries, you need to show photo ID and register a SIM card before you can use it.

    Yes, it worked for Hong Kong. But many other countries are already past the point of no return for surveillance and if they ever want to mount these kind of protests, they'll find these choices have already been stripped away. By then, it's too late.


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