Law in the Internet Society

From the Iron-Fist’s Crushing Grip to its Invisible Panopticon - Understanding the Impact on Hong Kong’s Political Culture through the Net’s Dynamics

-- By SkyeLee - 09 Jan 2022

Hong Kong’s Culture War: Moving the Battle Online

On 8th December 2021, four individuals from Hong Kong were arrested. They were accused of inciting unlawful assembly and criminal damage using messenger app Telegram. This is the latest in a string of police crackdowns on anti-establishment online communication which form a part of a wider tug-of-war for control over Hong Kong’s cyberspace.

A culture war is underway in Hong Kong. As the government pushes Hong Kong’s cultural integration with the Chinese mainland, a systematic attack on anything inconsistent or discordant is executed. Physical monuments - such as the Pillar of Shame commemorating the June 4th Tragedy, have been stealthily deconstructed. Groups like the Hong Kong University Student Union and Chinese University Student Union have been disbanded and disavowed for their stance on recent political incidents. Non-centralized media outlets such as Apple Daily, Stand News, Citizen News have either been raided and shut down or pressured to dissolve. As anti-establishment monuments, groups, and media fall away, the movement is forced increasingly into Hong Kong’s cyberspace.

The establishment’s hubs of online activity are concentrated on social media messaging groups via apps like Telegram. The current movement is uniquely ‘diffused’, participation in the movement is ‘open’ and, unlike the 2014 ‘Umbrella Movement’, there is no particular leadership. With no central leadership determining the overall direction, strategising within a ‘flat structure’ has influenced information transmission within the movement. Decentralised access to knowledge and communication has been conducted mainly through social media messaging apps.

The Government’s Attack Strategy: Covert Infiltration over Overt Suppression

In seeking to dismantle anti-establishment structures in cyberspace, the Hong Kong government’s plan of attack has been one of infiltration. Hacking attempts have been made originating from the mainland on both a systemic and individual level. State-actor sized DDos technology networks attacked Telegram concurrently during demonstrations in Hong Kong. Direct seizure of personal devices allow for a surveillance network to be constructed through piecemeal infiltration from individual and separate ‘nodes’. And in the spirit of infiltration, there begins the covert creation of fake accounts to join channels in decentralised communication networks like Telegram. Their approach is similar to the mainland Government’s infiltration of VPNs. Infiltrating channels of communication makes for more effective listening; one who wishes to listen, can listen without making one’s presence known. And when the listener’s presence is unknown; the talkers continue their unfiltered talking, unaware of invisible ears. The introverted nature of a government listener allows it to be more omnipresent, increasingly omniscient and eventually omnipotent. The invisible panopticon disciplines the anti-establishment, as did the iron fist before it.

However, the government’s attack is custom-made for Hong Kong. The decentralized and open nature of current movements renders them particularly vulnerable to infiltration by the opposition. Yet more importantly, and much like the city itself, Hong Kong’s cyberspace is already globally integrated. Western-owned big technology companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter have rooted their presence in Hong Kong with large data servers and years of service in the region. Foreign telecommunications businesses have also adopted Hong Kong as a telecommunications hub in Asia. Not only are the telecommunication and technology corporations economic powerhouses themselves, but their services are an entrenched part of Hong Kong’s financial and economic landscape. Hong Kong is unlike the mainland, where the Government has controlled and shaped the development of its cyberspace. If the Hong Kong government were to engage in overt controls of the internet, it would be ambushing a hitherto unrestricted, global cyberspace.

Such a move would entirely undermine the government’s continued interest in maintaining a veneer of democracy in the nation. There are political and economic interests in retaining Hong Kong’s appearance as a democratic hub not fully integrated into the Chinese monolith. Therefore, Hong Kong is unlikely to enact a similar ‘Great firewall’ that China has. The government’s vested interest in this veneer of democracy makes infiltration all the more explicable as its weapon against the anti-establishment movement.

The bruised Cyberspace, post-erosion of Hong Kong’s Free Internet

But regardless of the relatively covert nature of the government’s cyberspace infiltration, the government’s assault on Hong Kong’s cyberspace has clearly begun and the net has, like a body suffering trauma, reacted defensively and protectively.

For the movement, activity has become more diffused than ever. Communication has retreated such that information is passed through connections of trust, limited to small, contained groups. Insecurity over data and digital footprints on the internet is brewing. A notable practice that has developed is a ‘scorched-earth’ deletion of data upon arrest. Arrestees sever and delete all online traces, accounts, and connections. The intention is not limited to self-protection from incriminating evidence, but to prevent their device from being used as a ‘node’ for incriminating one’s friends and allies.

Technology giants active in Hong Kong’s cyberspace have sought to insulate themselves from political controversy and reassure users of their trustworthiness. Facebook and Google have hurried to reiterate their commitment to data privacy and have released all records of government data requests. Regardless, a further shift towards privacy in compromise of consumer comforts is explicable among Hong Kong’s digital population. When WhatsApp? announced new privacy policies allowing Facebook to access private user data in January 2021, usage dropped sharply in Hong Kong, coinciding with the rise of Telegram as media sites touted its stricter policies on stored user data.

As netizens react to recent Telegram arrests, there has been a second migration from Telegram to Signal, based on free software principles with open source code. The paradigm of consumer demand is no longer about securing data, but outright deletion. Local media sites flaunt the primary attraction of Signal being its feature of self-deleting messages. The political climate has stimulated user hyperawareness and heightened concern about the governing power structures and locus of data control, focussing users on the technology’s foundational protections, beyond its convenient technical functions.

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r3 - 10 Jan 2022 - 05:43:24 - SkyeLee
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