How FireChat Bypasses China's Internet Shutdown In Hong Kong

The "off-the-grid" app is designed as a mesh network, which uses Bluetooth to connect nearby phones and strengthen itself.
Posted at 3:56 PM, Oct 01, 2014

The Chinese government is relying on a tried-and-true tactic for dealing with pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong — mess with the very devices and systems helping protesters organize.

But in protests that are at best embarrassing for China and at worst threaten to damage its power in the region, the people of Hong Kong have found a surprisingly evasive way to stay connected to each other.

FireChat is an app that uses mesh networking — through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, the app turns your phone into a signal that can interact with any other phone within about 250 feet regardless of cellphone signal or an Internet connection. (Video via RT)

Protesters were already dealing with thousands of phones jamming nearby cell towers. Think of a crowded concert or professional sports event. But throw in police in riot gear attempting to physically disperse the crowd and Chinese authorities blocking social media sites like Twitter and Instagram in mainland China, and you have the recipe for once-flaming dissidence to dwindle. (Video via CNN)

But the nature of mesh networking means the more phones you have connected, the stronger the network.

The CEO of FireChat's developer told Time 200,000 people in the Hong Kong area downloaded the app between Sunday and Tuesday.

Micha Benoliel says his company Open Garden advocates freedom of speech, and while FireChat wasn't specifically built for protesters, "if it can help people in that situation, we are very supportive of what's happening here in Hong Kong."

For someone who didn't build his product specifically for a particular use, Benoliel is certainly getting a lot of traction out of the situation in Hong Kong.

BENOLIEL, OPEN GARDEN CEO ON THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: "People were exchanging information, coordinating, helping each other during the protest to figure out, for example, which roads are blocked, where are the police and what needs to be done to help each other."

BENOLIEL ON BLOOMBERG: "Basically, it's unstoppable, and people can keep on creating automatically networks on the ground and communicate with each other, so it's pretty hard to shut down."

FireChat has previously received attention for its use in other repressed countries where access to the Internet is state-controlled, like Iran or Iraq.

But the company also warns FireChat's lack of dependence on networks and government-controlled infrastructure brings with it anonymity that both protects users and can endanger them.

Since you don't know who's reading your chats, Benoliel has warned users in Hong Kong not use their real names. He previously warned users not to disclose any information "that would put them in a harmful situation if it were to be discovered by somebody who's hostile."

This video includes images from Getty Images.