Hong Kong protestors use FireChat to text without cell service

Hong Kong protestors are using FireChat, a mobile messaging app, to communicate without using cellular or Internet service. Pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong downloaded the app 100,000 times in just one day.

Vincent Yu/AP
Protesters shout slogans outside a flag-raising ceremony where Hong Kong's embattled leader attended in Hong Kong Oct. 1. Protestors are using the app FireChat to communicate without using cellular service.

What do the protests in Hong Kong and the festival Burning Man have in common? FireChat.

Protestors in Hong Kong are using the messaging app FireChat to communicate without using cellular or Internet service. Pro-democracy protestors downloaded the app 100,000 times between Sunday and Monday morning.

“When your smartphone cannot connect to a cellular tower or Wi-Fi it chooses Bluetooth,” Micha Benoliel, co-founder and chief executive of Open Garden, which made the app, told The Wall Street Journal. 

Open Garden created FireChat in 2011. FireChat messages leapfrog to nearby phones, using Bluetooth technology, until it reaches the desired user. Messages can only leapfrog to other phones with the application and can only travel 230 feet. The application was originally created for use at outdoor festivals, such as Burning Man, and during emergency situations where cellular service is out. But since its creation, FireChat has been used by protestors to connect during demonstrations. 

The application became popular in Hong Kong after Joshua Wong, head of the student activist group Scholarism, encouraged people via social media to download the app in case the government shut off cell service, according to The Wall Street Journal. As of this writing, neither cell or Internet service in Hong Kong has been shut off.

Students in Taipei, Taiwan used FireChat during a three-week demonstration in March and April of this year. The 300,000 protestors used FireChat to communicate because they feared that the Taiwanese government would cut off Internet access. Iraqis are also finding uses for FireChat. The app was downloaded 40,000 in Iraq.

While FireChat has become a widespread form of communication during demonstrations, there is one major problem the app – it isn't very secure. 

Once the application is downloaded, users communicate through chat rooms, but it's hard to know who is in a chat room because only active participants appear in attendance. Anyone within range can connect to a chat room, and, so long as they aren't participating in the chat, they can secretly read the contents of the discussion. Reporters in Hong Kong have been able to join chat rooms, and Christophe Daligualt, chief marketing officer of Open Garden, told Newsweek they probably aren't the only ones.

"[I]t is probable that police and authorities are doing the same...,” he said. “Don’t type anything you wouldn’t want a stranger to read, because a stranger can read it.”

Connecting to chat rooms can also be difficult. As of Monday, there were 97,000 chat rooms in Hong Kong, and users find it difficult to determine the one they are looking for. 

"[I]f you are on FireChat and there are 97,000 chat rooms, you can’t even see most of them. When you join in, you’ll have 20 options displayed.... That creates more of a challenge,” Mr. Daliguat said. 

There are reports that protestors are being targeted by malware. Cybersecurity researches at Lacoon Mobile Security found an iOS virus, targeted at protestors in Hong Kong, that can steal text messages, photos, call logs, passwords, and other data. 

Michael Shaulov, chief executive at Lacoon Mobile, told Reuters that the virus is the most sophisticated malware known to attack iOS users. Because the code was written in Chinese and targeted at protestors, Mr. Shaulov believes the malware is connected to China. 

"It is the first time in history that you actually see an operationalized iOS Trojan that is attributed to some kind of Chinese entity," he told Reuters.

Even with the lack an anonymity, protestors are finding ways to use the app without being detected. “The chat room will designate a very specific location, a street corner, so people can find out easily what is happening at that particular spot or leave a message for someone who is meant to be there," Daligualt told Newsweek.

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