Technology & Science·Analysis

Hong Kong protesters go offline to dodge China's digital surveillance

China tracks nearly everything individuals say and do, online and off. That technological overreach has been evident in the streets of Hong Kong, influencing how protesters choose to use — or refrain from using — digital tools.

As the government turns to technology to keep civilians in check, demonstrators are increasingly going dark

A person uses a mobile phone to record a protest against a proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong on June 12. Under China's sweeping cybersecurity law, nearly everything individuals say and do, online and off, is tracked. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

The images are astounding: Throngs of people marching, in crowds that seemingly go on forever, spilling through the streets of Hong Kong. But there is something else remarkable about the recent protests in the autonomous Chinese territory.

They are the product of a digital world, one in which networked technologies are used to hatch plans and rally support. But equally — and perhaps more — concerning, it's one in which authorities are able to track the activities of civilians both online and off through digital trails left behind from everyday activities, such as posting to a social network or simply taking public transportation.

While the recent rallies have been an urgent public response to a proposed extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects in Hong Kong be sent for trial in mainland China, according to experts, the nature of the protests foreshadows how our understanding of internet freedom needs to evolve, as the digital world and offline one become increasingly linked.

While it was once thought that digital tools would bring about democracy the world over, many now worry those beliefs were ultimately mistaken, as digital authoritarianism takes hold in China and elsewhere.

While the recent rallies target an extradition bill proposed by the Hong Kong government, the nature of the protests could be foreshadowing how our understanding of internet freedom needs to evolve. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

According to a report from the Washington-based think-tank Freedom House, entitled The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism, internet freedom has declined globally over the past eight years. But, it says, China reached new extremes in 2018 through extensive use of video surveillance, facial-recognition technology and the implementation of a sweeping cybersecurity law.

Among other restrictions, China's cybersecurity law obligates social media companies to register users under their real names and requires that companies, both local and foreign, comply with the state's rules on banned content.

Alarm has also been raised by China's "social credit" system, currently being piloted in parts of the country, which essentially tracks what an individual does, from what one buys to what one does in public. Turning in a found wallet will give you a boost, while jaywalking, littering or breaking bigger laws will cost you.

That data is compiled into a "trustworthiness" score, used to further control people's behaviours and freedoms. For example, last summer, a Chinese university denied an incoming student his spot because the student's father had a bad social credit score. Millions of others were blocked from buying airline or train tickets because of their score.

The Chinese government hopes to make it a nationwide system by 2020, saying it will improve public behaviour.

"In the People's Republic of China, privacy stops where the Communist Party's power begins. Period," said Samantha Hoffman, a fellow at the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Umbrellas are placed to block security cameras outside a police headquarters, during an anti-extradition bill demonstration in Hong Kong on June 21. While the sophistication of protesters' strategy to avoid digital surveillance might be impressive, some argue it should also set off alarm bells. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

That technological overreach has also been evident in the streets of Hong Kong, influencing how protesters choose to use — or refrain from using — digital tools.

"On the impact on protesters' activity, the [Communist] Party hopes to use technology to augment its traditional control strategies, including creating fear and disincentives," said Hoffman.

According to Leo Shin, a cultural historian of China at the University of British Columbia, when it comes to China, "Big Brother is watching, no matter what."

Shin cautions that authorities — either in Hong Kong or mainland China — are likely to employ a "very sophisticated" system of tracking on those deemed to be the instigators of the recent protests, and that punishment could be "severe."  

"There will be infiltration, there will be digital trails, there will be a record," he said. "If you are deemed to be a threat to the government, then you could be prosecuted."

Analog measures

It's not just online conversations that can be tracked, according to Greg Walton, a cybersecurity expert and fellow at the Ottawa-based SecDev Foundation. He says we are on the precipice of "a new hyper-connected reality, powered by 5G and the internet of things, wherein everything can be monitored, as the distinction online and off disappears."

To avoid the watchful eye of Big Brother, digitally savvy protesters in Hong Kong are erasing online posts, turning off location tracking on their phones and taking analog measures, such as leaving paper notes, and opting to use cash to pay for public transportation, instead of the ubiquitous Octopus smart card.

But while the sophistication of that strategy to avoid digital surveillance might be impressive, it should also set off alarm bells to onlookers around the world.

After all, a transit pass isn't designed to be a surveillance tool; it is a modern convenience in an increasingly cashless society — that is until a government decides otherwise. And as some observers are noting, it's an important reminder that the conversation around authoritarian surveillance "should be about more than smart cameras [and] AI."

According to Walton, now is the time to rethink our concept and understanding of internet freedom. In coming years, he said, "we will be less concerned with surveillance of the internet, versus surveillance by the internet."

This merging of the internet with the public sphere has enormous implications for networked social movements operating under authoritarian regimes, he said, as offline space for real-world organizing will all but disappear.

Two student protesters pose with protective rubber gloves and an umbrella in Hong Kong on June 12, as they took part in the protests against a proposed extradition bill. Hong Kong's tech-savvy protesters are going digitally dark as they try to avoid surveillance and potential future prosecutions, disabling location tracking on their phones, buying train tickets with cash and purging their social media conversations. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

What's more, the implications of this trend will be felt globally, said Merlyna Lim, a Canada Research Chair in digital media and global network society and an associate professor at Carleton University.

"As China becomes more and more powerful, economically and technologically, the force to comply with Chinese ways will just increase," she said. "[This] has a negative impact on democracy and freedom in the world — Canada isn't excepted."

That's why the Hong Kong protests are so important, said Lim.

"The Hong Kong protests have shown us people, as they collectivize, still have agency," she said. "Time marches on, new technologies emerge, and they are used by those designing to clamp down on individual freedoms. But hopefully, they're also used by those fighting for change."

About the Author

Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.

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