How People in Hong Kong Can Communicate if Cell Networks Go Down

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Many protesters in Hong Kong who suspect authorities may shut down some cell networks in the city have begun chatting on an app that doesn’t require a central network connection. The app, however, has some potential pitfalls and demonstrators have a few other options at their disposal, especially if they have Android phones.

Minor protests began in August, when the Chinese government announced that candidates for Hong Kong’s first ostensibly democratic mayoral election in 2017 would be vetted by Beijing, stoking fears that mainland China will never allow Hong Kong to live under true democratic leadership. Those protests swelled to tens of thousands this past week after some were arrested and others pepper-sprayed, resulting in the largest demonstrations Hong Kong has seen in years.

Though cell networks are still reportedly up and running in Hong Kong, we have a rundown of the few options Hong Kong protesters can turn to for communication without cell service, and some of the potential security problems therein.


At least 100,000 people in Hong Kong have reportedly downloaded FireChat in the last 24 hours.

The service allows users to talk anonymously in chat rooms with groups of people nearby, and the connection works on Android and iOS via a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection. While around 33,000 people in Hong Kong were using the app simultaneously between Sunday and Monday, according to the South China Morning Post, FireChat’s openness comes with some security pitfalls.

“People need to understand that this is not a tool to communicate anything that would put them in a harmful situation if it were to be discovered by somebody who’s hostile,” Christophe Daligault, vice president of sales and marketing for Open Garden, the the company that developed FireChat, told Wired this past June. “It was not meant for secure or private communications.”

Hong Kong Aerial Scene


Student protesters block a main road in the financial district of Hong Kong on Sept. 29.


FireChat doesn’t advertise its security pitfalls on either its Android or Apple download page, but researchers at The Citizen Lab, which specializes in topics at the intersection of human rights and technology, advised the app’s users to exercise caution in a report earlier this year.

“Given that security and privacy are not goals of the open broadcast channel implemented by FireChat, users should carefully assess if using FireChat is safe for their specific context and avoid sharing sensitive information through the service,” according to the report’s authors.

Still, FireChat is the most talked-about peer-to-peer communication app in use right now in large part because it takes advantage of the iPhone’s multi-peer connectivity feature. Other apps have are much more secure, but they live only on Android devices, largely because Android allows for easier peer-to-peer sharing, according to Nathan Freitas, founder of The Guardian Project, a company that builds open source apps.

Serval Mesh

Serval Mesh is like the “more serious version of FireChat,” Freitas said. It’s a bit less user-friendly than FireChat, but functions in the same fashion, using phone-to-phone connections to create a “mesh network” instead of one that’s centralized. All messages sent on Serval Mesh are encrypted, meaning its much more secure.

“It’s really meant for humanitarian, kind of disaster situations,” Freitas said.

One potential problem with Serval Mesh is that, like many chat apps that don’t require a cell network, it’s only available on Android devices.


Anyone with an Android phone can download Commotion so they can access another user’s Internet. Like FireChat, Commotion is another mesh network. As long as someone with an Internet connection is nearby, thousands of users can theoretically access that single connection, meaning they wouldn’t be helpless if cell networks in central Hong Kong are shut down.

Of course, the more people who jump onto a single connection, the slower that connection is likely to become, and Commotion comes with some of the same security risks as FireChat.


StoryMaker is another app only available for Android users, but this one allows people to shoot video, take photos and record audio to build multimedia stories of their own. Users can share them via a Bluetooth connection, according to Freitas, so StoryMaker can provide a platform to share visual information when cell networks go down.

Hong Kong phones


A protester uses the phone as hundreds occupy a fashion district in Hong Kong on Sept. 29.



F-Droid isn’t a chat app, but it allows an individual cellphone to run its own app store in the event that Internet connections go down, according to Freitas. The problem with using these Internet-less communication apps is that users need an Internet connection to download them in the first place. F-Droid, which is again only available on Android phones, installs a “catalogue” of other Android apps on a user’s phone, meaning other people can download apps from that user’s phone without connecting to a cell network.

For Android users, there are several options for communication should cellular networks be shut down during the ongoing protests — not so for iPhone users. FireChat is not a secure way to communicate, but in an environment that is currently prioritizing the spread of information over communicating privately, the Wi-Fi communication app with the broadest reach is winning out.

Hong Kong Umbrella Protests on September 29


Pro-democracy protesters flash lights outside the Hong Kong government headquarters, on the second day of the mass civil disobedience campaign Occupy Hong Kong, Admiralty, Hong Kong, China, on September 29, 2014. Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong said Monday they would continue their occupation of key parts of the metropolis, despite warnings from officials to clear out after a night of police using pepper spray and tear gas to try to disperse the crowds.




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