Ersu Ablak

Technology Writer / Sunday Founding Partner ersu.ablak@sundayagency.co

Protesters in Hong Kong use COVID masks, as well as umbrellas, against the Chinese government’s tracking with face recognition programs. (Photo: Joseph Chan, Unsplash)

At the moment, all eyes are on the demonstrations in the USA and the course of the COVID epidemic. But Hong Kong has been hosting similar protests every weekend for months. Moreover, they are struggling against the Chinese administration, which has no regard for human rights. They are fighting against the Chinese police force, face recognition, and labeling programs without any equipment other than cell phones, masks, spray paint, and umbrellas.

Therefore, Hong Kong demonstrations are like an experimental area for the demonstrations that the world will face much more frequently in the coming period.

George Orwell, who had fought against the fascists in Spain, wrote what the oppressive regimes could do in his novel 1984. If he was alive, he would observe what was happening in Hong Kong on the spot and made great additions to his book.

Playing hide-and-seek with “Big Brother”

The Hong Kong authority under the administration of the Chinese Government is trying to identify the activists with its full force, while the activists are doing their best not to get caught. The activists believe that if they are caught and flagged in China’s criminal database, their lives will be over. Measures such as China’s social credit system feed this fear. It will be impossible for any citizen whose social credit grade has fallen in the system, which China started in 2014 and aimed to finish in 2020, to work in a decent job, to get a loan from the bank, to buy a house, or to get a good education. Those who live in Hong Kong are aware that if they are caught in protests, they will be downgraded at the social credit system. So they respond instantly to every step that the government takes. The Big Brother described by George Orwell is chasing, the protesters are dodging. 

Trying every way to capture

This hide-and-seek game continues both in the physical world and the virtual world. The Hong Kong administration is trying to use everything from drones, cameras, police force, pepper spray, pressurized water, dyed water, mobile phone information, and credit card information to capture the demonstrators.

Demonstrators have some basic rules to avoid getting caught in the virtual world. First of all, they turn off the facial recognition and fingerprint reading functions of mobile phones. Thus, the police can only search for evidence on their mobile phones, legally if the captured demonstrators show consent to enter their passwords. They do not install any apps that they think are cooperating with the government on their mobile phones. They prefer Telegram and similar applications to speak encrypted. They connect to the Internet via a Virtual Private Network (VPN). They also use their phones’ Bluetooth and airdrop features to exchange information when they come side by side. They never prefer Istanbul Kart-like city card (Octopus) when they go to their homes, they buy disposable tickets and arrive at their homes through a different station than they always use. They either leave their credit cards and all cards with chips on them, or if they take them with them, they cover them with aluminum foil. They think this will prevent the police from accessing their cards remotely.

You can’t blame if you can’t record

Of course, the most dangerous thing for protesters is getting caught in the act. Virtual evidence may prove that they were where the protest took place and that they have anti-Chinese views, but it may not be able to fully document their participation in the protest. That is why it is very important to hide their identity at the time of the protest.

For this, they usually start by removing the “smart poles” equipped with various cameras at the location of the demonstrations, or they spray paint their cameras. If the cameras are up high, like on a drone or on the shoulder of a police officer, they disarm that camera either by building a wall of umbrellas or by holding hundreds of laser lights towards the cameras. That’s why the Chinese government is trying to qualify laser lights, which can be bought from any market for $ 10, as assault weapons and to prohibit its sale. They have not yet attempted on umbrellas, but they also want to ban the masks altogether.

Is Corona mightier than Big Brother?

The use of masks in Hong Kong has turned into complete chaos. In October 2019, the administration banned wearing masks at the demonstrations. However, in December this ban was rejected by the higher court. Then there was a series of different orders until the final decision in April 2020. According to the final decision of the higher court at the beginning of April, it was announced that the mask could be worn in legal demonstrations and it was forbidden to wear it in unauthorized demonstrations. The COVID epidemic was cited as a reason for this decision. The court delegation stated that the government cannot take away the right to wear a mask for anyone who wants to demonstrate while there is a pandemic threatening public health. So, in the last case, COVID has overcome Big Brother.