Hong Kongers fear a great firewall, TikTokers arrested in Egypt, spyware in Central America
In Hong Kong, forms of censorship that once seemed unthinkable now feel like a clear and present threat as Beijing tightens its grip on the city-state and its once-lively public sphere. Last week, I met a democracy activist who said Hong Kongers are worried that something like China’s so-called “Great Firewall” — the world’s most robust state-run internet censorship machine — could soon be erected to prevent free information flows in and out of Hong Kong. The question now is, “How do we minimize the damage if a firewall is to go up?”
This kind of control is present in the courts, but it’s playing out online too, with help from Big Tech. At the end of 2022, tech experts noticed that the open source code repository GitLab was being blocked on Apple’s Safari browser in Hong Kong. When they dug into it, they found that Apple was taking its censorship cues from none other than Tencent, the Shenzhen-based tech behemoth and owner of WeChat that has little choice but to follow state orders. This is nothing new coming from Apple — the company has a long history of deference to Beijing — but it is yet another setback for Hong Kongers. The Intercept has more details on the tech and politics of Apple’s blunder.
While headlines from mainland China remain focused on the Covid outbreak, I’m keeping my eyes peeled for news of how certain “White Paper” protesters, who demonstrated last year against zero-Covid policies, have been detained for spreading their messages online. My old colleague Oiwan Lam, an intrepid Hong Konger herself, has a terrific round-up of for Global Voices this week, in which she notes that many of those arrested are “either feminists or are connected to the Chinese feminist social circles.”
TikTok parodies are no laughing matter for Egyptian authorities. At least three Egyptian TikTokers are in pre-trial detention this week over a video in which they parodied a visit to a state prison. Even before I found this English-language summary of the video on Middle East Eye, I found it pretty engaging. These people are actual actors, and it shows. The fact that it resonated with their followers — it has 255K likes so far — should be little wonder, considering that an estimated 60,000 people are currently jailed in Egypt over political speech and activities. The three main actors in the video, Basma Hegazi, Mohamed Hosam and Ahmed Tarek, are now facing charges of spreading false news and belonging to a terror organization.
WATCHING THE WATCHERS: SPYWARE IN CENTRAL AMERICA
Journalists at the Salvadoran independent news outlet El Faro published hard evidence this week that the administration of president Nayib “world’s coolest dictator” Bukele appears to have paid just over $2.2 million in 2020 for a year-long contract to Eyetech Solutions, a third-party distributor of surveillance software that works mainly for Israeli manufacturers.
The story hits close to home for El Faro, where several reporters have been targeted with Pegasus, the notoriously invasive spyware made by NSO Group. They are now taking NSO to court in the U.S.
But it’s not just El Salvador. Spyware is a pervasive issue across Central America. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega’s spies have been using Israeli surveillance tech for years. In Honduras, it has been a boon to political power and the drug trade for much of the past decade. On Tuesday, we published an in-depth investigation of surveillance tech and its effects on public life in Honduras by our Bruno Reporting Fellow, Anna-Catherine Brigida.
A key character in the story is Juan Orlando Hernández, or “JOH” as he was often known. The president of Honduras from 2014 until 2022, JOH is currently sitting in jail in the Southern District of New York, awaiting trial on drug trafficking and weapons charges. Although he had a chummy relationship with the U.S. while in office, he was swiftly extradited and brought to the U.S. when his last term ended. And he was just one of 11 officials who were arrested on extradition orders from the U.S. at the end of his administration. Surveillance tech was a critical tool for this government. As one police source told Coda: “Nothing moved in Honduras without JOH finding out.”
It would be easy to paint a portrait of Honduran officials as a homogeneous group of narco thugs. But this story instead takes on the complex institutions of law enforcement and defense in Honduras, breaking them down into organizations made up of real people. Brigida worked for months to build trust with former police officers and officers still on the force and to capture their voices.
We also elected to focus on what happened and continues to happen to people in Honduras itself, rather than panning to the transnational power dynamics that are in the background here. Honduras has a historically close relationship with the U.S. military and industry, and with Israel. Palantir, a tech company with relatively little public visibility, but big contracts with the U.S. and other governments, has a role in the story too. I commend Anna-Catherine for focusing on regular people who were caught up in this system. We need more stories that do this. On that note, if you have tips or pitches in this vein, don’t hesitate to send them my way. My inbox is open.
WHAT WE’RE READING
- An estimated 200,000 people work at a Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, where half of the world’s iPhones are made. What’s it like to work there? Rest of World’s Viola Zhou has an exclusive on the grueling conditions of work in “iPhone City.”
- In another chilling story on Egypt via the BBC, veteran tech-and-society journalist Ahmed Shihab-Eldin dug into the threats that people face — from police and criminal gangs — when using LGBTQ-friendly dating apps.
- And finally, amid all the AI razzle dazzle of late, The Markup founder Julia Angwin put out a refreshing interview with Princeton computer scientist Arvind Narayanan who calls Chat GPT a “bullshit generator.” Skip the hype and read this instead.