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Communications Censorship China Network Politics

Hong Kong Protesters Use Mesh Networks To Organize 85

wabrandsma sends this article from New Scientist: Hong Kong's mass protest is networked. Activists are relying on a free app that can send messages without any cellphone connection. Since the pro-democracy protests turned ugly over the weekend, many worry that the Chinese government would block local phone networks. In response, activists have turned to the FireChat app to send supportive messages and share the latest news. On Sunday alone, the app was downloaded more than 100,000 times in Hong Kong, its developers said. FireChat relies on "mesh networking," a technique that allows data to zip directly from one phone to another via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Ordinarily, if two people want to communicate this way, they need to be fairly close together. But as more people join in, the network grows and messages can travel further. Mesh networks can be useful for people who are caught in natural disasters or, like those in Hong Kong, protesting under tricky conditions. FireChat came in handy for protesters in Taiwan and Iraq this year."
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Hong Kong Protesters Use Mesh Networks To Organize

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  • by Geoffrey.landis ( 926948 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @06:17PM (#48031477) Homepage

    Interesting! I first heard that idea from David Brin, who was proposing it as something to be used for disasters.
    http://davidbrin.wordpress.com... [wordpress.com]
    Maybe the governent of Hong Kong qualifies as a disaster.

    • Re:For disasters (Score:5, Informative)

      by wvmarle ( 1070040 ) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 @01:29AM (#48033657)

      Maybe the governent of Hong Kong qualifies as a disaster.

      As a Hong Kong resident, I can confirm this part.

      This government's arrogance and repeated insults towards its own people (the currently offered reform package I consider one of such insults, there've been many occasions of the government not taking the people seriously before - "we're the government, we know what's best, so you may shut up now") is part of what makes these protests so big.

      • by iserlohn ( 49556 )

        A part of the problem is that the executive and other political appointees in power in HK is very much geared towards the appeasement of Beijing and will not confront them on the behalf of the people of HK.

        The communist party has indicated that they will not take back a decree on the Chief Exec election (basically rigging and interference from Beijing on the nomination process, so you get to vote for a choice of 3 different puppets). That just shows how arrogant these politicians are in Beijing - and yet th

        • That, too. Infrastructure projects like the high-speed rail to Guangzhou and (even more so) the Hong Kong - Macau - Zhuhai bridge (mostly paid for by Hong Kong, which stands to have the least, if any, benefits from the project) are a prime example of that.

          The reform package offered by Beijing is worse than what many thought would be a worst-case scenario. As it stands, there is no chance for it to be implemented. Keeping the existing system is a more favourable option for many, as at least in that case it's

          • by iserlohn ( 49556 )

            The next step will be the protesters blocking the government from functioning by blocking entrances to government buildings and facilities. The HK government will be partially paralysed and this will be the real test. CY Leung has already lost control of the situation and the narrative is definitely on the protesters side right now.

            I have a feeling that this will end with the intervention of Beijing one way or another, which is what Bj is trying desperately to avoid. There is no scenario for the central gov

            • The fact that Mainland politics is really old-fashioned and based heavily on "saving face" compounds the difficulty. From the protesters point of view though, it is not their problem - A political apparatus that isn't flexible or modern is a fault of China, not Hong Kong. I think it is an excellent test for Beijing on how to deal with an educated, engaged and motivated populace that doesn't see any reason to respect its legitimacy, because it's not going to be the last time they need to deal with it, isn't it?

              This "saving face" is not just politics - it's culture. It doesn't account just for the mainland government, also for the HK government, and even (to a lesser extent) the opposition politicians. For individuals and companies not having to lose face is just as important as it is for politicians. For the central government there's even more at stake, as president Xi has been working hard to cement his power in the mainland, and if he gives in to Hong Kong protests, that could give reason to mainlanders to sta

              • by iserlohn ( 49556 )

                Your post is insightful, but I have to disagree on your main point. HK politics is not about saving face. If it was, then CY would have been ousted long ago. HK leaders are propped up by Beijing, irrespective of the feeling of locals. There is no need to save face as their political reputation is not where they derive power from (unlike the politics inside the CPC).

                My point is that the demands of the protesters, which will inevitably lead to Beijing losing face if they gave in, is the result of the differen

                • Indeed. CY is a proxy. Having him step down would indeed mean a massive loss of face for the Chinese government, it'd be the second CE that has to resign as a result of mass protests (Tung Chee-Hwa officially resigned for health reasons iirc, but it's widely believed the real reason was the mass protest earlier that year). That, plus the inevitable retraction of the reform package that'd follow.

                  Interesting times ahead!

  • Apparently, breakingnews at seattletimes dot com is looking for first hand Hong Kong reports from protestors.

    Also, Yahoo has been turned off in much of Hong Kong so that residents can't find out about what's going on.

  • by WiPEOUT ( 20036 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @06:24PM (#48031527)

    FireChat requires that users create an account online (with an email address) before they can use the app. This and the lack of encryption limits its usefulness.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @06:40PM (#48031623)

      but the ad-hoc nature of it makes it incredibly handy.. i'm not sure if "security" it paramount when you are literally in the shit.. if you're being shot at by the government, who the fuck cares about your texts are in the clear? the point of this thing is to spread the word, quickly... encryption would HINDER info being shared.

      • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        If you're literally in the shit, then no apps are going to help at all - I'd recommend a shower and a lot of soap.
        Literally doesn't mean "a lot of".

    • FireChat requires that users create an account online (with an email address) before they can use the app. This and the lack of encryption limits its usefulness.

      It's available from both the Apple App Store and Google Play. People downloading it from either source already have given them an email addy.

      All this means is that the Chinese government will try harder to break into Google's nd Apple's servers.

      • by apraetor ( 248989 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @07:33PM (#48031943)
        Just because the app can be installed via the Google Play store doesn't mean it *has* to be installed that way. Android users can also transfer the app directly to each other via NFC (when available), WiFi, and Bluetooth.
        • Just because the app can be installed via the Google Play store doesn't mean it *has* to be installed that way. Android users can also transfer the app directly to each other via NFC (when available), WiFi, and Bluetooth.

          You forgot one - they can easily put it into developer mode and load stuff via usb from a laptop, etc. :-)

      • by Anonymous Coward
        It's funny you think Apple haven't caved to China and given them the same access they give the NSA.
        Or are you forgetting Apple put some servers into China recently due to security concerns...
    • Encryption doesn't make sense as currently all conversations on this app are public. So even if it's all encrypted, all your adversaries would have to do is connect to the app, and they're able to see whatever you see. Encryption is great for keeping private stuff, private. The app makers say they'll add encryption the moment they add private chat rooms.

      Now the thing of these big demonstrations is that you have tens of thousands of people connect at the same time to one chat room. Even if that's a private,

    • Then maybe they should be using a series of Pirate Boxes (http://piratebox.cc/)? Although they would only exist in smaller nodes, since they currently don't all mesh together it would still allow you to chat and post pictures/files anonymously, all without going online.
  • About fucking time. (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I've been saying this since the story about Terra Nova from Finland. All the money we spent after 9/11 on "wireless disaster preparedness" could have been covered by this idea alone.

    For years I have also advocated having a B52 full of cheap mesh cell phones and base stations to drop on any Arab Spring like event.

    -F34nor

    • For years I have also advocated having a B52 full of cheap mesh cell phones and base stations to drop on any Arab Spring like event.

      Even when countries are toppling longstanding leaders in a move that might bring them closer to the US, the US doesn't dare violate airspace so brazenly. (Even in Syria right now, the US is targeting rebel forces in the north, and it has stayed well clear of Assad Damascus during the whole Syria saga of the last years.) Think about it, the leadership is going to have the best

    • by martas ( 1439879 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @07:21PM (#48031869)
      The wireless networking research community has been working on mesh/ad-hoc networks for over a decade, citing communication in disaster areas as (one of the) main applications. At some point some people started to sort of laugh at it ("oh look, another mesh networking paper!"), because despite all the research it didn't seem to get any closer to reality. My guess would be that the reason why we're seeing it finally being used is because in order to be feasible, you need the density of devices to be above a certain threshold, which means a) it was never going to work in the pre-smartphone era -- with smartphones, you can just download an app to do it, but otherwise you'd pretty much need to spend major $$ to get the necessary number of dedicated devices out there, or else there needs to be wide-scale agreement to implement a specific protocol on all new devices, which was never going to happen because it's not a selling point, b) it won't really work in major natural disasters, because, well in order to maintain the density of devices, a large number of people need to have continuous access to power, which is unlikely if a disaster is so severe that communication infrastructure is offline (I imagine celltowers are less fragile than power lines).
      • by antifoidulus ( 807088 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @08:17PM (#48032161) Homepage Journal
        Well, speaking from experience in the Japan 2011 earthquake, you are kind of on the mark kind of not.

        b) it won't really work in major natural disasters, because, well in order to maintain the density of devices, a large number of people need to have continuous access to power, which is unlikely if a disaster is so severe that communication infrastructure is offline (I imagine celltowers are less fragile than power lines).

        After power was turned back on, I, and a lot of other people, went out and bought a hand-cranked USB charger(also doubles as a flashlight and radio, a handy device to be sure). It doesn't take that much energy to power a cell phone.
        As for the tower issue, the towers where I was at(Tsukuba, which is about halfway between Tokyo and Fukushima) all kept power even after the quake but since so many people were using their phones to either call people or check the news it was almost impossible to get through(the bandwidth of the tower may have very well been degraded as well). A mesh network *might* have been useful there, but it would have had to have enough density to work. Really the biggest problem with using a mesh network for disaster is that anywhere you have enough people to support a mesh network, you could probably just as easily use a bullhorn to communicate.
        • by toQDuj ( 806112 )

          If, by "halfway between Tokyo and Fukushima", you mean it's a hell of a lot closer to Tokyo (60km) than Fukushima (200km). And I live there too, though I was in Hyogo at the time of the quake so didn't feel anything.

          One rather nice outcome, though, is the SafeCast project. This project revolves around continuous mapping of the environment through bps-logger-coupled gamma spectrometers.

        • by martas ( 1439879 )
          Ah, interesting.

          After power was turned back on, I, and a lot of other people, went out and bought a hand-cranked USB charger(also doubles as a flashlight and radio, a handy device to be sure). It doesn't take that much energy to power a cell phone.

          Unfortunately, I think a significant level of such individual disaster-preparedness will always be the exception, not the rule.

          As for the tower issue, the towers where I was at(Tsukuba, which is about halfway between Tokyo and Fukushima) all kept power even after the quake but since so many people were using their phones to either call people or check the news it was almost impossible to get through(the bandwidth of the tower may have very well been degraded as well). A mesh network *might* have been useful there, but it would have had to have enough density to work.

          I agree with your hesitation there -- in that scenario, it seems like the presence of a mesh network might make the congestion problem worse.

        • Some disaster-preparedness integration between cellular tech and ham radio could be a powerful communications tool in emergencies - and in times of political unrest.

          PS: I was once a contract software developer at Tsukuba, in its very early days, when it was just emerging from the rice fields.

        • by Rich0 ( 548339 )

          Really the biggest problem with using a mesh network for disaster is that anywhere you have enough people to support a mesh network, you could probably just as easily use a bullhorn to communicate.

          A bullhorn is useful for general announcements, but not specific ones like "We need Fred to come in early for a shift at the hospital due to an emergency."

          Sure, you can put that out over the bullhorn at 3AM, but if you have a constant trickle of those then nobody anywhere gets sleep, and then Fred ends up killing somebody due to a fatigue-induced surgical error.

          The advantage of a mesh network is that you can get the message to Fred whose phone rings, without having to bug every other human being in the city

        • I've got a solar powered charger which also has a battery in, so it can charge a cell phone at night as well.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Nimey ( 114278 )

      Imagine the reaction to our flying a B-52 with its bomb bay doors open low over a foreign city. Imagine how many people would be killed in the ensuing stampede, to say nothing of the air defense's reaction.

    • For years I have also advocated having a B52 full of cheap mesh cell phones and base stations to drop on any Arab Spring like event.

      Really? And what would that achieve?

      It is incredibly naive to think that the mere introduction of Western style democracy and -constitution would magically solve all problems. It didn't happen that way in the West - it took several generations, during which time people got educated to the new ideas via debates, protests, and later on, school, and that process is still ongoing. Democracy is worthless if people are not willing to play by the rules - the losers have to accept that they didn't win this time, an

  • by BrookHarty ( 9119 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @06:41PM (#48031633) Homepage Journal

    I wonder if LTE D2D still works if the network gets turned off. Since its not out yet, wonder if there are kill switches.

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  • by jeffb (2.718) ( 1189693 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @07:10PM (#48031815)

    Mesh networking, peer-to-peer, power to the decentralized people -- it all sounds great. But some of those people will still be on the side of the government. I wonder how much information one mesh node could accumulate to incriminate other participants? How many of "the people" will be willing to participate in an uprising like this if they know that a government stooge is likely no more than two or three hops away?

    • by Areyoukiddingme ( 1289470 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @08:27PM (#48032215)

      I wonder how much information one mesh node could accumulate to incriminate other participants? How many of "the people" will be willing to participate in an uprising like this if they know that a government stooge is likely no more than two or three hops away?

      You do realize that most of these protesters are literally standing two or three steps away from a government stooge wearing riot gear, right? It's not like they're even trying to blend in.

      I think we're forgetting our history here. Peaceful protest only works if it seriously inconveniences as many people as possible for as long as necessary. Politely camping in a park without a permit doesn't really cut it. If they're using tear gas on you, it's a start. If they're using water cannon on you, you're getting somewhere. If they're setting dogs on you and hauling you away to county lockup by the busload, you're doing it right.

      People forget exactly what happened during the Civil Rights movement in the United States. It's peaceful protest only on the protester's side. On the side of the so-called civil authorities, it's decidedly not peaceful, and rarely civil. And this has to go on for quite a long time. Literally years.

      Occupy Wall Street accomplished nothing because none of that happened. These protests in Hong Kong will likely accomplish just as little. They're carefully avoiding inconveniencing anyone. Nothing happens if you do that. We demonstrated exactly that in the US. Hong Kong should learn from our mistakes. If they want to actually change things, they have to get obnoxious and get hauled away by those riot gear-equipped policemen. In droves. By the thousands. Or since we're talking about Chinese numbers here, by the tens of thousands. (It takes some serious effort to match per capita numbers in China.) Being careful not to interfere means you can be ignored, not just by authority, but by the man on the street as well. You must inconvenience people. You must interfere. You must do so as peacefully as possible, but you must do so.

      Most recently, the US did it wrong. We in the US weren't willing to pay the price to get the oligarchs to back down. The populations of several Arab states did it right. Yeah, it hurts. Sorry, but that's what it takes. Are you in China ready?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Occupy Wall Street accomplished nothing because none of that happened

        That's because they didn't know what they wanted to accomplish and didn't understand what was going on.

        Most recently, the US did it wrong. We in the US weren't willing to pay the price to get the oligarchs to back down.

        That's because the idea of American oligarchs is a myth. Oh, the US has a class of about a million rich people. That's not "oligarchs", that's just a lot of wealth for a lot of people. They aren't going to "back down" and th

      • by wvmarle ( 1070040 ) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 @01:56AM (#48033733)

        These protests in Hong Kong will likely accomplish just as little. They're carefully avoiding inconveniencing anyone.

        As said by a true outsider. You're obviously not in Hong Kong.

        Some 200 bus routes affected: cut short or completely out of service. MTR services (which have to take over all those bus passengers) become overloaded - there's already barely any spare capacity left. Many people have problems going to work, or just to travel around town. For tourists it's even worse, some major hotels like the Mandarin Oriental and the Grand Hyatt being in the middle of the protest zones. Well over 100 schools and kindergartens have been closed for a few days already due to the blockades, with students and teachers not being able to get to the schools. Dozens of shops, restaurants and banks had to close (losing income), ATMs running out of money as delivery vans can't get there.

        There is effectively NO traffic possible in Mongkok, Central, Admiralty and parts of Wan Chai and Causeway Bay. Roads affected include Argyle Street and Nathan Road, two main arteries of Kowloon, and Connaught Road Central in Hong Kong, a key artery connecting all the main business districts there.

        It's China National Day today. The fireworks display in Victoria Harbour has been cancelled (that was announced yesterday), this usually attracts hundreds of thousands of people. The official flag raising ceremony this morning, one of the main parts of the official celebrations, lasted less than 10 minutes, with a bunch of protesters in the crowd turning their backs to the flags while they were being raised. Honestly I don't know how those officials actually managed to get to Golden Bauhinia Square, but wouldn't be surprised if helicopters were used (there happens to be a heliport right next to it). It'd be really hard for them to drive there as they usually would do.

        And you say they're not inconveniencing anyone?

        All they are really careful about is to not give the government any excuse to go after them. The grass around the cenotaph on Chater Garden was kept completely free, no-one set foot on it. There's only a 20-cm tall wire fence around it, and signs saying to stay off the grass. The protesters regularly collect garbage, leaving no trash behind. A police van got stuck in the middle of the Mongkok protest zone, recovered by police a day later - completely unharmed. Some bus drivers even donated "their" buses to help block off roads, confident the vehicles will not be damaged.

    • If you read Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago" - a great read, by the way, you see that the protesters are fighting to survive. Unless they succeed, and even if they succeed but keep the status quo government, at some point in the future they can be dragged from their beds at 3am, tortured and held in a cell until they sign their lives away, on the basis of that evidence, plus evidence from anyone else involved who names them after said torture to 'hopefully' get their sentence reduced. Doing a halfway meas
  • by mbone ( 558574 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @08:25PM (#48032211)

    Firechat uses Apple's Multipeer connectivity [nshipster.com] for IOS, and a similar protocol for Android, to achieve a mesh network. I do not believe that any of this is MANET [ietf.org] (the IETF's favorite mesh networking protocol).

  • by godrik ( 1287354 ) on Tuesday September 30, 2014 @08:44PM (#48032305)

    I am no expert in mesh networking, but I was under the impression that addressing in them does not scale well. The best technique seems to be BATMAN [1]. AFAIU it requires everynode to perform a full broadcast regularly and that each device stores a complete routing table to each other device. That will not scale to build a city wide network.

    Somebody knows more?

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B... [wikipedia.org].

    • by asavage ( 548758 )
      I think some of the peer-to-peer software development might have solved this problem. the first generation peer to peer software all nodes were created equally creating massive traffic overheads. The second generation used the "super peer" model where high bandwidth nodes were connected to each other and most nodes connected with a super peer. With people moving around physically the mesh network becomes more complicated but when density is high like at a protest or sporting event a super peer network mode
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Democracies should literally build their technology around mesh networks. Build everything off mesh something. Build everything around them and then take down all centralised systems and leave autocratic countries like China in the dark ages. Bitcoin is essentially mesh too. It's peer to peer.

  • " many worry that the Chinese government would block local phone networks."

    The thing is the network can collapse by itself even without government action. Imagine Tens of thousands of phones concentrating in area.

  • ...as simple as jamming all the frequencies? Jam the WiFi, jam the LTE, GSM, CDMA, whatever they use there. Boom. No more network. It only works because the people in power let it work, or are incompetent. Mesh networking isn't some immune savior of the people.

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