The Civic Stack: Hong Kong Protest Movement Tech
A tech stack is the set of technologies people use to build applications, like programming languages and servers. The Civic Stack series asks leading activists, hackers, and public sector innovators to share the tools, services, and methods they use in their work. How do they organize their contacts? Why do they swear by a certain email service? What’s worth paying for, and what can we get for free? How does it all build up to creating change in the world?
In the first piece in the series, Matt Stempeck and Fiona Teng 鄧穎恆 spoke to media and activists in Hong Kong to better understand the tech supporting, and in other cases, actively fighting for, their efforts to maintain a semi-autonomous democracy on China’s doorstep.
Since June, millions of Hong Kong’s citizens have poured into the streets to protest a bill that would open them up to extradition to China. That bill has been formally withdrawn, handing protesters one victory. The battle over how much influence the mainland government exerts in Hong Kong rages on, as the confrontation has sparked a broader pro-democracy movement seeking additional assurances. Despite violence in the streets and an economic toll, the movement enjoys the broad support of Hongkongers. They translated that support into election victory, as pro-democracy candidates won 17 of 18 district council positions with unprecedented voter turnout in recent elections.
How did Hong Kong’s pro-democracy organizers do it? Entire books will be written about the broader historical forces at play. For more historical and economic context on the protests and the use of technology by all sides, we recommend Maciej Cegłowski’s Hong Kong explainer (Maciej is the founder of Tech Solidarity).
In this post, we’ll look at the civic tech stack the organizers have been using in their day-to-day work. Much of this stack is created and maintained by the civic tech community in Hong Kong, which includes groups like g0v Hong Kong and Station for Open Cultures. These civic hackers have long been focused on common civic tech themes like addressing social problems by making government more transparent, and bringing together civil society to improve public interest technology. As pro-democracy protests took center stage, some of the community have shifted their focus to supporting the cause with their technical skills.
If this all seems sophisticated, keep in mind that Hong Kong’s activists aren’t new to this work. In 2011-2012, Occupy Hong Kong sustained one of the longest Occupy movements worldwide. It lasted 13 months in the plaza of the HSBC headquarters in Central, a business landmark. This protest set the stage for the 2014 Occupy Central protests, which took on the cause of universal suffrage that is now central to the current wave of activity.
The protest organizing stack
Organizing massive protests involving hundreds of thousands of people presents logistical challenges in the most open of nations. Hong Kong’s democracy activists face additional threats from police violence on the streets and China’s weapons-grade surveillance technology, which permeates digital life and is intertwined with state-infiltrated social media services like WeChat.
Since the protests began, English-language articles have shared some of the civic stack used by Hong Kong’s activists. From the other side of the planet, Americans have now witnessed multiple watershed moments in technology that will reverberate for years to come: While here in the United States, some cities and (Democratic) presidential candidates have called for a ban on law enforcement usage of facial recognition technologies, Hong Kong’s protesters have actively torn down lampposts with such cameras. They’ve reportedly distracted police drones with lasers. And like many before them, they’ve built and submitted data to shared crisis maps like HKmap.live to track resources and police locations. In a dystopian update to the crisis-mapping practice, Apple censored the map from its monolithic App Store under pressure from China, though the service remains available on the open web.
We spoke with two Hongkongers to learn how movement-building and collective democratic action are carried out in an era of comprehensive digital surveillance designed to bolster authoritarian states. Their thoughts represent their perspectives. The transcripts have been edited for clarity and cohesion. Specific tools or technologies are in bold.
Holok is the impact strategist of Eaton HK, and represents an open source community called Station for Open Cultures. They shared some of the technology interventions they’ve experimented with as part of the pro-democracy camp (民主派), and observations on the work. Holok’s preferred pronouns are they/them.
Eric is a reporter in Hong Kong and shared his insights from a media perspective. Eric’s preferred pronouns are he/him.
Offloading digital risks to bots
Telegram Messenger has been a critically useful tool, and its usage in Hong Kong has surged as huge crowds have gathered to demonstrate. It’s an encrypted chat tool that, unlike Whatsapp, doesn’t prompt users to upload their chatlogs to Google Drive where they can be requested by authorities. It also allows groups to hold polls, leading to fluid group decision-making with emergent qualities. A crowd of protestors can vote on their next actions in real-time as events unfold. This is not without risks. After protestors beat up multiple men at an August airport protest, Bloomberg news likened its leaderless group dynamics to those of a mob.
Telegram has “many different purposes,” Eric tells us. For example, “there are channels for safe pickup vehicles for protestors after violent protests. Drivers may join them and report their locations and pick up [protesters]. [There’s] a channel for job vacancies for jobless protestors if they lost their work because of a court case.” There are also channels for people to share information about particularly violent police officers, like the Hong Kong Citizen Police Report (here’s its Github repository).
Administering protest groups on Telegram has proven risky, with reports of administrators receiving visits from authorities designed to chill their participation. Holok says, “Very early into the movement, our community member got arrested for administering a Telegram group consisting of 20,000 people for ‘inciting public obstruction.’” Then came the BigOcean bot, an encrypted Telegram chatbot that can act as the admin of a Telegram group without exposing a human admin to arrest. “Everyone will be anonymous,” Holok says. “Basically you are talking to a bot without memory, it just mirrors what to say to the screen. So there’s no way to know the user ID” of the sender.
“A similar bot was created for designers,” Holok says, because some designers in the democracy movement were reported to their bosses at commercial advertising companies. The result, NewPromoter bot, allows designers to share without putting their identities at risk.
— Alice Su (@aliceysu) July 7, 2019
“It’s like an anonymous digital flyer being sent to iOS users. People would do this in crowded places, like in the tube, on the train, during a concert, wherever possible.” Eric also recalled the power of AirDrop when he was at the frontline or a protest, “I once received a flyer saying police [were] coming when I was in the protest frontline.”
LIHKG Forum has also played a critical role in online coordination. Eric tells us that LIHKG is “like Reddit [and is the] main online forum for protestors to discuss and promote events. It is a branch of an older forum HKgolden, which has operated for many years, so LIHKG inherited many specific terms and ciphers that only frequent users understand.”
Getting away when you need to
Holok echoed Eric’s mention of ride services for protestors fleeing arrest. “There are people who organize “school buses,” which are volunteer drivers who will pick up the protesters and send them home. There are many groups doing that but one of them is a competitor to Gogo Van called “Call4Van” and you can send a Telegram message @call4van_bot to get a safe ride home.”
The authorities have adapted to protestors’ tactics, most recently sealing off exits to a university campus where activists were stationed in order to apprehend those inside. This forced some of those inside to attempt escaping through the sewers underneath the university.
Crowd size estimates are often hotly debated, as they can be used as proxies to express the size of a movement, and whether it’s growing or fading (in the US, the National Park Service used to provide crowd size estimates, and no longer does, leading to the creation of the Crowd Counting Consortium). In Hong Kong, organizers prototyped a wifi sniffer to generate a proxy estimate of crowd sizes by counting passing cellphones as they look for wifi connections. Google notoriously used this technical trick to map wifi networks around the world with its Street View cars. The Hong Kong project has been put on hold due to security concerns.
“Livestreaming has been a great part of the movement, so No China Extradition Live consolidates all the livestreams from different districts,” Holok told us. The site aggregates the many video feeds, which the user can surf by switching between channels in the site. “And we are developing a map, Video Mapper, where people can tag the livestream records to facilitate human rights lawyers gathering visual evidence.”
Asked if livestreaming has amplified the protests and in doing so, increased participation, Holok points out that many video feeds do this and, as demonstrated by Stand News‘s Gwyneth Ho and many media anchors, provide viewers with an important sense of participation. For example, Ho is one such video reporter. She was livestreaming the Yuen Long attack, when over one hundred men in civilian clothes began violently attacking civilians, including her as well, sending her to the hospital for injuries.
Maintaining connectivity is an ongoing priority for the protest movement. While the government hasn’t cut internet access, that is always a possibility. And local cell phone networks often overload from the huge number of people at protests like the airport demonstrations. “Whenever thousands of people assemble,” Holok says, “the mobile internet will be jammed due to too many requests, leading to either extremely slow or outright inaccessible Internet. This situation creates a warm bed for fake news such as that ‘the government cut internet from airport’ and can lead to evacuation of the assembly.” In response, and to protect against the possibility of the government blocking internet access, activists developed a mesh network that provides enough bandwidth for Telegram and text communication.
Holok shares another circumvention technology, i612, a blockchain-based archive for pictures (here is its open source code). “Basically it’s a library card for contents that writes the beta data to blockchain and makes it unchangeable.” It was built by a community member who goes by the alias KinKo.
Another aspect of the Hong Kong movement that has been less publicized than the street protests are the many efforts to starve the state and the businesses supporting it of resources. The boycott methods being used are quite thorough, including this four-color scheme to guide protestor behavior at a place of business:
The yellow square indicates a pro-democracy business that should be supported. The blue square indicates a pro-establishment business, to be boycotted. The red square indicates a pro-China business, and suggests the viewer “decorate” it with spray paint or stickers. The black square indicates Mafia or rogue attackers, and suggests the viewer “renovate” (break glass). The protest movement is not a purely nonviolent movement, and as police violence toward activists has escalated, some portion of protesters has retaliated and taken defensive action.
“There have been guidelines to what level of boycott you should do,” Holok says. In addition to the color-coded grid guide, sites like Words of Mouth have sprung up to guide consumer action towards Hong Kong’s restaurants.
Activists were temporarily able to exploit a loophole in the government’s tax payment system to undermine tax collections. Holok shares: “There is a tax resistance going on, so someone developed a ‘If I pay, you pay with us’ platform for taxpayers called PPS Automator.” Because the government pays $1 in transaction fees for each tax payment made through this portal, activists are urging taxpayers to pay in $1 increments, resulting in full loss of their tax revenue due to fees. The government eventually broke the tool by working with the payment provider to require users to manually submit their online payment once every ten attempts.
People are also trying to detach themselves from reliance on the city’s ubiquitous public transit system, Mass Transit Railway (MTR). Says Holok, “the Boycott MTR Pathfinder provides an alternative transport path for you instead because MTR has been collaborating with the police (e.g. closing down stations and transporting police).”
Masks have been an important feature of the Hong Kong protest movement. The government has banned them, opening protesters up to identification by adversarial facial recognition technology. Private Internet Access, a Virtual Private Network provider whose service can digitally masks users’ web activity, wrote up mask technology new and old on their blog.
Activists and journalists are also at risk of being doxxed. A smear site promoted by the Chinese government and hosted on a server in Russia published personal details of young protestors and journalists: headshots, dates of birth, telephone numbers, social media accounts, home addresses and “a record of ‘nasty behaviours’ such as participating in protests,” Holok says. One of the doxxed activists was later assaulted by three men, while others have been harassed and threatened by phone. In response, the democracy activists’ digital team has fought to take down the webpages and Telegram groups used to publish their private information. Thousands of complaints to DDOS Guard, the company protecting the hosting of doxxed information of private citizens, have led to little more than combative responses from the company.
We asked if being forced to rely on pseudonyms in digital conversations hindered the relationship building so critical to organizing a movement. Holok replied, “Surprisingly, pseudonyms don’t affect relationships and [social bonds] at all. We have encryption [chat] groups that are all encrypted and use pseudonyms, and [their participants] care about each other as much as close friends. In my community, we also have members who we only refer to in pseudonyms. I myself have been using a pseudonym for 10 years, and most of my friends don’t know my legal name. Of course, that is still dangerous because now [that pseudonym] is fixed and more or less like a pen name.”
Activists have shifted sensitive communications away from public (and state-infiltrated) social media platforms over to private encrypted messaging apps like Telegram (leading to state-sponsored denial of service attacks on the service). The 21st century protest playbook also now recommends the use of VPNs and pre-paid SIM cards, one-way subway passes that are harder to surveill, and altogether avoiding Chinese digital services like Alipay (a payment service already making significant inroads into Western markets).
Disinformation campaigns against the Hong Kong movement are rampant and well-documented. In response, civic hackers are attempting to take on viral campaigns. For example, rumors were spreading that the police were killing protestors and covering it up by faking their suicides. These rumors were supported with falsified raw data. In response, a member of the civic tech community refuted that narrative with verifiable data on Hong Kong’s suicide rate to provide a more objective perspective.
The g0v Hong Kong community has also built and maintains a Telegram bot for reporting fake news, @g0vhkFakeNewsReporterBot, which submits reports to g0v Hong Kong’s factchecking website. Another factchecking site, HKFactCheck, was launched ahead of the upcoming district election. (You can check out other factchecking and misinformation-fighting tools from around the world on the Civic Tech Field Guide). Holok admits that much like other efforts to fight misinformation online, the researched rebuttal never reaches nearly as many people as the original myth.
While the immediate drama of street protests draw much of the media attention, Holok’s community is also looking at longer term cultural persuasion tactics. FreedomHKG TV is a proposed hardware project “to break the monopoly of media.” The project is under development and adapts media jamming techniques to the streaming TV era. Its goal is to let the young hijack their parents’ TVs with Raspberry Pi devices to display movement-friendly YouTube streams.
The movement has also created its own videogames to tell their story through media. The Revolution of Our Times is an Android game that lets players role play the protest experience. It has over 1,000 users and 766 5-star reviews in the Google Play Store. Screenshots and a player walkthrough can be found on LIHKG.
Liberate Hong Kong is another Hong Kong protester-centered videogame. Its protagonist is an anonymous Hongkonger fighting to stay on the frontlines of the protests despite being shot, arrested, and otherwise attacked by the police:
(You can explore more civic games on the Civic Tech Field Guide).
“When the movement burst out in June, there was a round of petitions,” Holok tells us. “There were so many petitions by different groups and individuals. So we wrote a crawler to calculate the number of petitions and signatures out there.” Working together, the g0v Hong Kong community also put together Extradition, one of the first campaign sites to present the movement’s argument against the Chinese extradition law to the world.
In August, an anonymous LIHKG user, Scorched Earth, launched Freedom KHG, a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe designed to advertise the protestors’ mission to overseas audiences. The campaign quickly raised $1.8 million via a US volunteer’s personal account.
The 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund was created this past summer to crowdfund medical expenses, legal fees, mental health support, and humanitarian relief for protestors. They also provide support to families whose breadwinners are detained in jail or trial. The group shows up at the police stations where the mass arrests are processed to provide support. They accept donations by all major credit cards and bank transfers to an HSBC account, and respond to requests for aid for those arrested (and their families) over Whatsapp.
Communities are no longer defined by their immediate geography, thanks to communications technology. Thus one compelling pro-social use of the internet during the Hong Kong crisis has been the solidarity work done by activists overseas, including members of the city’s ethnic diaspora, as well as pro-democracy allies around the world. Their contributions aren’t always material, but an influx of messages of solidarity and respect can also help sustain a movement.
A “Lennon Wall” is a public space decorated and adorned by the public, as a way to voice sentiments. The name refers to the wall in Prague where democracy activists posted grievances with the communist regime. The Umbrella Movement adorned a wall in the Central Government Complex in Hong Kong in a similar way. The wall hosted democratic sentiment, demands, and artwork. The artwork on both the original Lennon Wall and its Hong Kong descendants has been painted over and removed many times, but continues reappearing. Someone made Lennon Wall Hong Kong, a digital version of the wall that couldn’t be taken down as easily. Its endless scroll displays countless inspirational graphics, memes, and messages from around the world.
Tech: Democracy’s friend or foe?
It’s easy to look at the online and offline battles Hong Kong’s journalists and activists are facing and see that technology can be used in pro- and anti-social ways. The story we once told ourselves of tech inherently disrupting entrenched powers and enhancing democracy has proven far too naive.
Asked about the balance between tech-powered organizing work, and their opponents’ tech, Holok said they generally see tech as neutral: “It depends on who you are providing solutions for, the gov[ernment]? Or the people?” They continue:
“This really goes back to Martin Heiddigger’s The Question Concerning Technology. In his famous article, Heidigger worried that technological advancement will lead to the singularity,” Holok says, and that humans would be reduced to ‘standing reserve,’ or mere fodder for technology to use. Just consider the relationship between people who work at a company and the phrase “human resources.”
“I think in my community, technology plays a different role in our worldview,” Holok continues. “Ideally it should be a vehicle for morals and ethics. While Hong Kong’s tech scene is struggling to fight the on-going dehumanization of tech abuse, there is much to learn from the non-tech civic groups and activists to figure out a way to use technology fairly.”
“[A]s my idol Audrey Tang, the first transgender digital minister in Asia, said, technology is the least important [consideration] in the discussion of an open society. I’m grateful to the momentum brought about by the [pro-democracy] movement that makes civic tech much more relevant and approachable than before.”