Hong Kong protest puts mesh nets to the test in state censorship smash

FireChat becomes tool of choice for organizers

Hong Kong harbour daytime

Protesters in Hong Kong have turned to the FireChat app to communicate electronically – because it uses mesh wireless networking and thus evades any attempt by the authorities to block the web amid ongoing unrest.

Multiple reports from the area note how youngsters taking part in the uprising this week have connected with one another through the chat tool, which can function without a Wi-Fi or cellular network basestation – instead, it uses Bluetooth to build an ad-hoc wireless network over which conversations are routed.

An estimated 100,000 people made FireChat the most popular app on the Apple App Store in Hong Kong when they downloaded the application over the weekend, and used the tool to organize protests in the autonomous region. It's being seen as a real-world stress test of the technology, amid fears Chinese authorities would crackdown on web communications in HK.

The unrest in Hong Kong has been ongoing for several days: citizens in the special zone want leaders in mainland China to put the election of Hong Kong's chief executive to the popular vote by 2017. Beijing would prefer a state-backed election committee picks candidates that people then vote on.

Open Garden, the US startup that builds FireChat, has expressed its support for the protesters: cofounder Micha Benoliel is going to Hong Kong himself to view the unrest, sparked by police firing tear gas into the crowds. The upstart has also said that it is working on adding encryption, though in the meantime it is warning users in Hong Kong to take precautionary measures.

FireChat, like other mesh network tools, employs the mobile devices of users to form a network of local connections which can function as a data network. When enough devices participate, the technique can allow users to connect and communicate over a vast area even when Wi-Fi and cellular networks are unavailable or have been deliberately shut down.

The situation brings to mind the Arab Spring protests of 2011 in which Twitter and social networks were credited with helping protestors organize in the midst of violent crackdowns and censorship from government authorities. ®

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