Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution Activists Go Off-the-Grid, but New Technology Has Major Security Gaps

The protest and youth rebellion movements of the last decade have been able to capitalize on tech saaviness to spread information. Hong Kong's "Umbrella Revolution" is no different. But the Chinese government's own technology expertise and ability to censor dissent is proving hard to overcome.

Social media is the default tool of many youth activists – in the Umbrella Revolution's case, much of it on Instagram. When the Chinese government shut down intra-China access to the service, activists turned more toward off-the-grid social media using tools like WiFi Direct (WFD) and FireChat to communicate with small groups (who in turn communicate with other small groups, and on and on), a somewhat slower but assumed to be more safe method.

Not so fast says TechPresident.com in the article The Dangers of Off-Grid Social Networking in Hong Kong and Beyond:

In non-geek speak, it means that users of any system relying on Wi-Fi Direct may leak personal information whenever they join together (say, to create a FireChat group). This is a problem endemic to the underlying tech -- which means that anonymity is *way* more difficult to maintain.

These small bands of protesters and activist leaders who run WFD sessions are much more susceptible to infiltration by government entities, and unwitting participants could be sitting in sessions managed by what are in fact mainland spies.

I'm more than a little scared about the overhyping of FireChat -- not because it's not a cool technology, but because it's being *way* oversold for a use case where people may be surveilled. For example, I'm not sure how it can be completely "off the grid" but still require registration of users with a central database -- that would seem to require being on the grid (as do the usage stats that are being collected).

Plus, the very nature of small-scale off-the-grid networks means that very few get reliably sourced information. Think of the game 'telephone' but with more people and greater distances. 

[W]e've seen very few multi-hop Wi-Fi Direct-based networks (say with 4 or 5 or more hops), and probably nothing greater than a few hundred users on any one off-grid network.

So while WFD and off-the-grid networking may be a necessary evil for the activists in Hong Kong, no one should get too complacent when using this nascent and bug-prone (as in wire-tap bugs, as well as glitches) technology. 

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