News Brief

Hong Kong protesters mask digital footprint to avoid arrest

Protesters campaigning against a new extradition law in Hong Kong deleted Chinese apps and reverted to using cash and buying single-ride subway tickets to avoid being identified by security forces.

Those who went to protests were warned not to take selfies or pictures of the people there, but instead, to take wide shots, avoiding showing people’s faces. One protestor, who spoke to the Washington Post, said she had deleted all her Chinese apps.

This includes the social media app, WeChat, a messaging and payments service used in China that has been reported to have serious security flaws. In a study of 11 social media apps, Amnesty International rated Tencent apps as zero (Tencent owns WeChat). WeChat, which has a monthly user base of one billion people, doesn’t have end-to-end encryption and had the possibility of being accessed by a “backdoor”. However, WeChat is indispensable within China and over one billion users had the app at the beginning of 2019.

Telegram, a more secure, non-Chinese messaging app that was used during the protests, reported a DDoS attack that coincided the protests. The attack, which involves bots overloading a system with information, doesn’t put people’s personal data at risk, but can cause the app to stop functioning.

The founder of Telegram, Pavel Durov, said on Twitter that the IP addresses of the attack were coming “mostly from China”, adding that it coincided with the protests and the case was “not an exception”.

Organizers said nearly two million people took part in Monday’s protest, an increase from the week before, to campaign against the extradition bill, which would allow residents and visitors to Hong Kong who are criminal suspects to be extradited to the mainland.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has said that the bill is now “indefinitely suspended”. However, protesters rejected Lam’s apology and protests will continue this week. Demonstrators want Lam to withdraw the bill completely, end the crackdown on activists and resign.

Increasingly, Hong Kong is being incorporated into the Chinese security state. Already Hong Kong train stations have Chinese security because they connect to the mainland and some fear Hong Kong’s smart city push will only expand state surveillance.