May 1, 2020

Hongkong's Smart City – The City as Enemy

How Hongkongs Smart City became a weapon.

The smart city is often discussed as a model for the future. As if it were a vague plan, a structure yet to be built, somewhere far away. In fact, most of us already live in a smart city, at least in the digital sense. In nearly every major city around the world, including Hong Kong, projects have been underway for years to sensorize the infrastructure; to network with residents’ sensor-filled mobile devices and to merge and then intelligently analyze the various public data sources. The goal is an adaptive city, a city that reacts, or even anticipates.

This is exactly the fear of the protesters in Hong Kong, that their smart city is being used by a pro-Chinese government against its own citizens. That the smart city is actually a weapon being directed against its citizens. This is why Hong Kong protesters are at war with the smart city. The smart city is their enemy.
This became clear to a larger audience when, in August of 2019, photos and video clips started circulating on social media showing a group of people gathering around a lamppost on a sunny day, holding umbrellas.

Umbrellas had been a symbol of the resistance movement in Hong Kong in 2014. The “umbrella protests” is what people called the 11-week blockade of downtown Hong Kong when tens of thousands demonstrated against the ongoing expansion of mainland China’s stronghold over Hong Kong. The umbrellas were a telling sign of the nature of police violence being used against protesters, serving to protect against pepper spray, the police force’s weapon of choice. Today the umbrellas have reappeared, again as a shield. But this time against a new weapon, that of surveillance.

In one clip from 2019, sparks were seen flying from an electric saw that someone had brought along and started to use on the lamppost. Then a rope was thrown around it, and the umbrella protesters began to pull. To the cheers of those around them, it fell over and onto the street.

The lamppost was part of the smart city, one of 50 “smart lampposts” that had been installed that summer; a total of 400 of them are planned for Hong Kong’s inner city area. The smart city infrastructure aims to make citizens “happier, healthier, smarter, and more prosperous,” as stated in the city government’s Smart City Blueprint, published in 2017. One can only understand the form and nature of the struggles in Hong Kong — and also the message of the protesters — by understanding that they are taking place in a smart city.

The lampposts, which are supposed to support traffic control, integrate a variety of functions, according to a document from the city administration. Each post serves as a 4G/5G antenna and a Wi-Fi hotspot, and is equipped with Bluetooth detectors, panoramic and thermal imaging cameras, and fracture sensors that mea- sure humidity, temperature, wind speed, and solar radiation. They can also transmit location signals to devices in their vicinity.

The city administration has repeatedly assured that the lamp- posts do not operate facial recognition software, that they will not be used to monitor the population, and will not pass on any data to mainland China. But the citizens are losing confidence in the city government. They want proof.

Hong Kong has been part of the People’s Republic of China since being handed over by its former British colonizers. However, until the end of the 50-year transition period in 2047, it remains a hybrid: a special administrative region with democratic elements, its own laws, and its own legislature consisting of elected politicians, representatives from the financial sector, and representatives of the People’s Republic of China appointed by the mainland. Beijing also decides on the head of government, and appointed Carrie Lam as Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive. When Lam proposed a bill in February 2019 that would allow the extradition of Hong Kong citizens for trials in other states, including mainland China, protests started flaring up early last summer and then grew explosively. Protesters were incensed that the head of their government no longer wanted to protect her citizens from prison camps and social credit systems. Lam, and the smart city infrastructure she had pushed so hard for, became the target of the demonstrations.

The protesters dismantled several of the felled lampposts and posted the parts they found inside them online. They wanted to find out the resolution of the cameras, whether facial recognition technology had been installed, and whether the lampposts could read the RFID chips that are in the cards we all carry in our wal- lets, which would make it possible to identify passers-by. The issue is a sensitive one for people in Hong Kong, who are well aware that sensors are all around them. What they don’t know is where these sensors are and what they are technically capable of. This has led to a distrust of the built environment.

Ticket machines and the turnstiles installed at entrances to the subway have come under suspicion. Many Hong Kong residents use the Octopus Card to pay for public transportation; this anonymous e-cash card is also accepted in selected shops and fast-food chains. But the fact that it can be reloaded using a credit card at the termi- nals located in many of the transport stations offers possibilities for deanonymization. Fearing that their movement patterns will be tracked, protesters refrain from using the card, instead preferring to use cash. Since the subway turnstiles are not equipped to handle cash, many of them have been intentionally damaged. Sometimes, the cash equivalent of the entrance fee is conscientiously left on top of the barriers by silent supporters of the protesters. This in turn has led to the curious sight of piles of cash piling up in the metro sta- tions. The protests themselves rely on public transport, as they are organized according to the flash mob principle. In order to avoid security forces, entire demonstrations change locations via metro and unexpectedly reappear elsewhere. “Be water” is the name of this strategy, alluding to a famous slogan by Hong Kong’s martial arts star Bruce Lee. This too, is a consequence of the ever-increasing surveillance possibilities in the digitized city.

Meanwhile, various myths are forming around smart city technologies. On the online forum Reddit, for example, it was claimed that the surveillance systems used in Hong Kong were the same as those used as in Xinjiang, where the Uighur territory stands under total surveillance, and where the existence of concentration camps has recently been revealed. The flood of speculation about the smart lampposts led the news agency Reuters to publish a fact check on them. However, their examination did not yield any clear results as to their ability to recognize faces or where the data is sent. The Shenzhen-based lamppost manufacturer stopped supply- ing them, allegedly due to personal online threats its employees had received.

In the meantime, however, people in Hong Kong are asking themselves where else sensors might still be installed. Many demonstrators are wrapping their smart cards and their new state-issued, chip-equipped electronic ID cards in aluminum foil. And during demonstrations, they switch their phones to flight mode, deactivate location tracking, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, or even remove their batteries. Others use disposable phones that do not contain any data, in the case of arrest. For this reason as well, some demons- trators deactivate their smartphone’s facial recognition function. Police officers have been known to simply hold the phone in front of the arrested person’s face to gain access to their device.

Protesters’ concerns about others identifying or pulling data from their devices stems from uncertainty about what the state might do with that information in the future. Although there are still decades to go before the transition to mainland China’s judicial system, many Hong Kong citizens already work in nearby China or with Chinese companies. Consequences could therefore arise at the next border crossing, or even at their workplaces.

Of course, Hong Kong has data protection laws. However, these include exceptions for the prosecution of offences. In addi- tion, police forces have so often disregarded the rules pertaining to demonstrations that a violat- ion of data protection rules is hardly unimaginable.

The clothes worn by the pro- testers, at least by the most dedicated ones, almost resemb- les a knight’s armor. In addition to using umbrellas as a shield, and glasses or a gas mask, and many wear protective headgear
are dressed all in black. The aim is not only physical protection, but also anonymity. They are anonymous, and they are legion. Laser pointers have become their „swords,“ wielded against surveillance and police cameras. During marches, they have pointed to hidden cameras installed in the buildings of mainland Chinese companies. This is what cyberpunk looks like, agreed William Gibson, the science fiction writer who coined the term, in a recent Twitter conversation that showed protesters fighting police with laser pointers.

A central feature of the protests in Hong Kong is the simultaneity of the digital and the physical. It is the first Internet of Things battle in an environment where bits and atoms have merged. A good example of this is the constant filming of street battles. Hong Kong’s demonstrations are also performances that harness the glo- bal publicity of the digitized public space. This is one of the reasons why fire plays such an important role. Not necessarily because of its destructive power, but because a burning Molotov cocktail draws online attention. It is also apparent that many Hong Kong protesters are addressing the West in their protests. They publish content on digital platforms used in the West, such as Twitter, which is otherwise not very popular in Hong Kong itself. Unlike mainland China, where Facebook and Google are blocked, Hong Kong is not behind the Great Firewall. The archaic nature of some of the protesters’ “weapon systems” is also revealed when one considers that all of the components needed to build a catapult, for example, can be ordered online without appearing conspicuous to the authorities.

Essentially, the protests in Hong Kong reveal two strategies to cope with technology. One is post-digital, and ranges from the destruction of metro hubs, to the coordination of demonstration routes by means of widely shared hand signals, to the so-called Lennon Walls — walls at public hubs covered in Post-Its full of news, a kind of bulletin board or newsfeed made of paper.

The counter-strategy is the creation of self-controlled sovereign digital territories. For instance, a popular technological tool that emerged early on in the protests was a crowd-sourced map of the city with a live view of all police movements. Now separate spaces have also been created where people share the latest news. Many demonstrators use Telegram groups to keep up to date. Not only does this messaging app bypass the publicly searchable internet, it also allows for closed groups with administrator controls. Apps such as Bridgefy, Twitch, and FireChat go even further by linking the phones of app users to create so-called mesh nets, information networks that are beyond state control because they work independently of the internet. Apps like these forward messages from sender to receiver via Bluetooth networked devices, without the need for a network-based connection. So even shutting down the internet would be of no avail for the state in this case.

But the essential digital tool for the protesters has become the bulletin board LIHKG. Bulletin boards are digital message plat- forms where users can easily post texts and images. LIHKG is spe- cial in that only users with a Hong Kong IP address or an email address from a Hong Kong university can register with it. This pre- vents mass infiltration by trolls of the so-called 50 Cent Army, paid for by China, who try to influence online discussions. In addition, most contributions are written in Cantonese, the main language used in Hong Kong, and not Mandarin, the dominant language used by the trolls from mainland China. LIHKG is therefore considered a safe environment where Hong Kong residents can exchange ideas. As simple as the forum is, it enables a kind of crowd intelligence. This is where demonstration routes, changes of direction, and activities are decided. Registered users can post sug- gestions anonymously, and if they receive enough upvotes, the posts will appear on the front page of the bulletin board. But LIHKG also functions as an armory of the resistance. For example, personal data for doxxing attacks on pro-Chinese activists and security forces are collected here. Thousands of times in recent months, personal details about opponents and information that could be used to discredit them have been published on the bulle- tin board. LIHKG also collects money for costly measures: this is how the full-page “Open Letter” was funded, which protesters in Hong Kong had published in numerous leading Western newspapers.

LIHKG thus helps to coordinate a movement that tries to function without a leader. With LIHKG, a separate, intelligently acting urban online space has therefore emerged from concerns about the many possibilities of internet misuse and of smart city infrastructures implemented in the urban space. It is an autonomous infosphere that belongs to its inhabitants: a real smart city, born from the fight against the official smart city.