Analyzing the role encryption and meshnet communication platforms play in post-Arab Spring protest movements: case analyses of Hong Kong & Ferguson, MO in 2014.
Note: This piece was first submitted as a paper for an academic project. I plan to expand parts of it into a much longer article. It was originally published online on my Medium blog.
There is little doubt that the advent of mobile communication platforms has radically affected how protests form and manage themselves. The speed and scale at which protesters can communicate their message, galvanize a base of support and report government infringement of their free speech rights is unprecedented. Governments, citizens and traditional media outlets treat “social media” as a monolithic entity, despite the fact that different communication and publishing platforms have diverging patterns of use, different sharing mechanics, and different levels of privacy protection. In this paper, we will examine the role a particular “genre” of communication platform plays in protecting citizens’ free speech rights in protest situations. By examining two cases from the recent past — the Hong Kong and Ferguson, Missouri protests of 2014 — we seek to demonstrate that decentralized and/or end-to-end encrypted mobile messaging platforms provide a first line of defense against government crackdown on free speech. To do so we will first explain the different facets of the “social media” landscape in two dimensions: the default scope of content sharing on a given network, and the degree of privacy protection afforded to users. Then we will describe the many similarities between the Hong Kong and Ferguson cases, and explain the role of decentralized and end-to-end encrypted messaging applications at the point where the cases diverged.
Patterns of mobile communication, an overview
Public mass communication and media publishing platforms serve as a new kind of “broadcast media” for the internet. From a technical perspective, these platforms are excellent facilitators of two different sharing mechanics: “one-to-many” and “many-to-many”. Although these labels are fairly intuitive, for the sake of clarity we’ll give an example of each. An instance of this one-to-many sharing mechanism takes place when the user shares a piece of content to their friends or followers on a given platform, like a post on Facebook or a tweet on Twitter. Conceptually, many-to-many communication is a little more difficult to grasp, but it can be understood as a kind of large-scale, decentralized, semi- or fully synchronous exchange of information, sometimes around a given topic or idea. Many-to-many sharing is what makes hashtags on sites like Twitter, Facebook and other services so powerful, and its what makes chat rooms dynamic and volatile places to interact.
The primary role of one-to-many and many-to-many communication in protests is to rapidly disseminate information at scale, to align protesters and the outside world on a mission and influence opinion based on images and narratives. In 2009, a Youtube video showing the death of an Iranian girl, Neda Agha Sultan, from a paramilitary-inflicted gunshot wound galvanized the international community around election protesters in Iran. News of a Tunisian street merchant who set himself on fire in protest of government harassment spread around the Middle East in 2011 and sparked revolutions around the region. A photo of Lt. John Pike casually pepper spraying UC Davis students at point blank raised awareness of police brutality in the United States during the Occupy movement that same year. There are dozens of other such cases of images and information being shared publicly on communication and media platforms in the recent past that influences our understanding of the role of “social media” in protests and protest movements.
There is a new trend in communication platforms that, we argue, up-ends the traditional understanding of the role mobile communication and media creation/publishing platforms play in fomenting and organizing civil unrest. End-to-end encryption and decentralization are two emerging trends in communication platform design and engineering. The sharing mechanics on the majority of end-to-end encrypted platforms are usually limited to one-to-one or small group sharing. An example of this is Apple’s proprietary iMessage protocol or, quite recently, WhatsApp’s upgrade to strong end-to-end encryption across its entire platform which was accomplished in partnership with Open WhisperSystems. The value end-to-end encryption provides is clear: any data transmitted between users over wireless networks is cryptographically protected, meaning that police or intelligence agencies that may be monitoring the network cannot read the contents of the data packets being transmitted.
Decentralized, anonymized communications platforms like FireChat are unique in that they do not rely on wireless networks to send and receive messages. Rather, messages are sent directly from device to device over Bluetooth, meaning that any two individuals can communicate one-on-one at a range of 20–30 feet, or they can engage in many-to-many communication with a large group of users (up to 10,000 users per chat room in FireChat) over larger areas (usually around 200–300 feet). Because messages never touch the broader internet or cellular communications infrastructure, there is no way to monitor a conversation remotely. Since the messages are not encrypted and chat rooms are public, users are encouraged to use pseudonyms instead of their real names.
Encryption and decentralized peer-to-peer communication platforms serve as a place of refuge for free speech in protests. In this way, these communications platforms serve as a kind of lever upon which citizens can apply pressure to assert their free speech rights when those rights are threatened (or perceived to be threatened) by an outside entity. In the following two cases we shall see the role this new genre of mobile communication platform plays in protecting the free speech rights of protesters and dissidents.
Our dimensions of interest for the purposes of case analysis
Both Hong Kong and the United States have protections for free expression written into their respective Bills of Rights. In both countries, Internet access and use goes largely uncensored and unregulated. Despite the fact that Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred in 1997 over to China, where freedom of the press and of free speech are notoriously restricted, Hong Kong enjoys relatively strong protections of free speech under the “one country, two systems” policy. In 2014, the NGO Reporters without Borders ranked Hong Kong number 61 in its annual Press Freedom Index study, which reflects the degree of freedom journalists, news outlets and internet users enjoy.  Apart from some restrictions on some kinds of content like pornography, graphically violent images, and information on ongoing court cases which may lead to an unfair trial, Hong Kong takes a relatively hands-off approach to regulating citizens’ internet usage.
The United States has enjoyed a long history of free expression, both on the part of its citizens and the press. According to the same 2014 Press Freedom Index study, the United States ranked 46th in the world. The United States government exerts very little overt control over the online activities of its citizens, usually asserting its authority only when the Internet is used to facilitate activities or transactions that are illegal in the “real world” (like buying and selling drugs, producing and exchanging child pornography, &c). Only recently has the United States stepped in to restrict free speech around issues it deems threatening to its safety and security. In 2010, members of the US Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee placed pressure on Amazon to remove Wikileaks from its cloud hosting service, Amazon Web Services. Wikileaks was removed on December 1. Members of the US Air Force were blocked from accessing the websites of The New York Times, Der Spiegel, El País, Le Monde and The Guardian. Only in recent times did the US begin restricting internet access in specific cases.
According to data elaborated from the 2013 International Telecommunications Union report on global patterns of internet use, there were approximately 5.75 million internet users in Hong Kong in 2014, representing 79.22% of the population. The United States has over 279.83 million internet users, representing about 86.75% of the population. This is another point of similarity between the cases.
Another facet of government internet intervention that bears mentioning is the breadth and depth of the surveillance infrastructure with which the citizens of Hong Kong and the United States must contend. In this dimension of interest we find still more similarities. Although Hong Kong’s population enjoys a great deal of internet freedom granted by their own government, Hongkongers’ online activities still occur in relation to the Chinese Golden Shield Project. Colloquially referred to as the “Great Firewall of China,” Golden Shield is perhaps the most sophisticated and pervasive domestic online censorship and surveillance apparatus in the world. In the United States, since June, 2013 when the first documents detailing an extensive domestic and international surveillance effort at the NSA were leaked, US citizens have become more aware of their privacy and the ramifications of these programs. Various programs under the NSA are capable of tracking and recording every telephone conversation in a foreign country and store that content for up to a month, as well as tracking domestic cellular networks and directly accessing servers of major US Internet companies to collect emails, videos, images and other materials.
Since our argument focuses on the use patterns for communications and media platforms, it’s important to compare these figures for both Hong Kong and the United States. Here again we find some similarities in the kinds of platforms in use and the hardware through which these platforms are accessible. A Neilsen report released in January, 2014 detailing patterns of mobile phone use in Asian countries places Hong Kong at the top in terms of smartphone penetration. 87% of the mobile phones in Hong Kong are smartphones. Interestingly, 31% of Hong Kong residents also own more than one smartphone. 57% of Hong Kong citizens own a tablet computer.  Market research firm TNS performed an online survey in January, 2014 of 1,068 individuals from Hong Kong and found that 91% of their respondents said Facebook was their communication platform of choice, followed by end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp, Yahoo, YouTube and WeChat. Additional findings suggest that Hong Kong residents plan to spend more time on Facebook, while devoting less time to reading newspapers and watching television. 
Digital consulting and analytics firm comScore released a report in May, 2014 revealing statistics of mobile phone ownership in the United States. 166 million people owned smartphones during the three months ending in March of that year, up 6% since the previous three month period ending in December. That translates to 68.8% smartphone penetration across the US. Apple has the largest market share, over 40%, meaning that 40% of Americans can send encrypted messages to one another without fear of government spying.  Pew Research released reports indicating that in the US, 71% of all adult internet users use Facebook, and that 76% of black versus 71% of white Americans use the platform. In the case of Twitter, 18% of the adult US population use the platform. Perhaps the most telling numbers for the sake of our analysis here is the differences in use by race: 16% of white respondents use the platform, whereas 29% of black respondents — almost twice the number of whites — said they use the platform. 
Case analysis: points of similarity and divergence
Now, we will examine each case in depth along several common milestones and areas of interest. First we will explore the causes of each protest movement and the immediate reactions online, then we will look at the use of social media platforms to organize the events ([paying careful attention to the types of tools and sharing mechanisms involved) and then conclude with an analysis of where and why these cases diverge.
The so-called Umbrella Revolution broke out in downtown Kowloon, Hong Kong in September, 2014. In August, Beijing passed an election reform framework that restricted eligible candidates to two or three people who “loved the country” and passed committee clearance. Some believed this move was tantamount to a Communist takeover of Hong Kong’s electoral practices. Tens of thousands of protesters came out in a show of unity against a diplomatic decision by China which protesters claim reneged on an agreement to grant them open elections by 2017. Protest leaders said they would not end their civil disobedience until Hong Kong’s pro-Chinese chief executive, Leung Chun-Ying, stepped down.  The reaction of Hong Kong’s youngest residents was swift. On September 22, 2014, thousands of students converged for a sit-in at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. These initial protests were organized on the end-to-end encrypted messaging application WhatsApp, as well as WeChat and to a lesser extent Twitter, Facebook and Instagram by the student-led pro-democracy groups Scholarism and Hong Kong Federation of Students. Within a day or two, protests gathered around the government headquarters in central Kowloon, which were initially organized through encrypted private communication platforms but publicized through many-to-many interactions around the Twitter hashtag #OccupyCentral.
About a month before the protests in Hong Kong erupted, an 18-year old black man named Michael Brown was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri at around noon on August 9, 2014. The uncertain circumstances leading to the incident, and actions by police officers immediately after the shooting (such as letting a police dog urinate on the makeshift memorial created just hours after the shooting) inflamed tensions, leading to police intervention. In the following days, protests erupted and awareness of the events spread across the country. Unlike the Hong Kong protests, we actually have a true first-hand report of the initial reaction on social media. Twitter user @TheePharoah tweeted at 12:03 “I JUST SAW SOMEONE DIE OMFG” (Retweeted 1,109 times), then responded to user @allovevie at 12:04 “the police just someone dead in front of my crib yo” (Retweeted 809 times). At 12:05 he tweeted a picture of Michael Brown’s dead body through the banister of a patio (Retweeted 4,950 times). At 12:06 @TheePharoah tweeted “its blood all over the street, niggas protesting nshit. […]” (Retweeted 557 times). @TheePharoah’s use of one-to-many sharing gave him the unexpected power to notify his followers, and in turn their followers through retweets and public replies, of the incident. 
When faced with the actual or perceived threat of government crackdown, protesters in each case chose diverging methods of communication based on the political and security situation on the ground. In the case of Ferguson, protesters responded to police brutality by increasing the rate at which they posted on public sites like Twitter and Facebook. Rather than eschew the public eye, they viewed publicizing incidents of violence and more general information about the incident as their best means of both offense and defense. Between August 9 and August 18, 2014 over 7.8 million tweets mentioned the hashtag #Ferguson, which doesn’t take into account the countless tweets which failed to include the hashtag yet still mentioned the protests or the incident. In the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting, a coalition of advocacy groups sprang up on Facebook and Tumblr, and various groups including “Ferguson October” took to sending mass texts notifying Ferguson residents of nearby protests and upcoming civil disobedience training sessions. Again, we see a strong emphasis on the use of public platforms and many-to-many communication patterns.
The case of the Hong Kong protest is radically divergent from that of Ferguson, MO in that protesters almost immediately cloaked their conversations behind pseudonymous, decentralized platforms that did not rely on wireless internet access to communicate. The primary motivator for this collective decision was fear that if the protests were to escalate into riots the Hong Kong government, which is influenced by China on matters of national security, would cut off mobile phone and internet service. In short, the adoption of meshnet communication was a pre-emptive “hack” around any crackdown government security forces might carry out. In an October 1st interview with the Wall Street Journal from the main protest site in central Kowloon, the CEO of Open Garden — the mesh networking company that produced the FireChat application –Micha Benoliel describes the rapid adoption of the decentralized communication platform. He said, “On Saturday [September 20] we were having a few hundred installs a day in Hong Kong city [sic] and on Sunday [September 21] we saw an explosion, a boom of new account creation on FireChat […] more than one hundred thousand downloads. People were exchanging information, coordinating, helping each other to figure out which roads were blocked, where the police were, what they could do to help each other.”  Assuming this timeline given by Benoliel is accurate, protesters adopted FireChat at least one day before the first protests at the university, meaning that conversation was cloaked from the start.
Protesters in Hong Kong did use public, many-to-many social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, however those platforms were primarily used to raise awareness of the protests in the outside world, not to mobilize support for the protests. Much of that organizational activity took place behind the wall of encrypted messaging applications and on ad hoc mesh networking networks.
Mobile communication and media platforms give protesters the power to mobilize and inform in an unprecedented way. Public one-to-many and many-to-many platforms give protest movements the ability to build and foster a huge network of loose ties to rally support and awareness of their cause, whereas private one-to-one or small group messaging applications give protesters the ability to recruit their strong ties — close friends, family, and members of organizations — to support the movement and actually show up to the protest. These mechanics have been well documented since the Arab Spring. However, we found a different mechanism of action behind the choice to use one kind of communication platform over another. In political situations where the likelihood of government surveillance is high, or where the government poses a credible threat of cutting off mobile internet and cellular infrastructure, protesters proactively choose both end-to-end encrypted communication platforms and decentralized platforms that do not rely on the mobile web. The swarm will always find a way to connect.
There are two possible avenues for future research into this emergent pattern of using encrypted and decentralized applications. The first would be to examine the patterns of communication in situations where the government authorities are unlikely to cut off communication networks entirely, but who are very likely to actively monitor protest movements as they form both at the scene and remotely. The ways in which protesters choose to communicate with each other and the outside world in light of recent use of Harris Corporation’s Stingray IMSI catching devices by municipal police forces, which were previously used only by US military and intelligence agencies, may change. Stingrays now fit in a backpack and can be deployed in the field to track all unencrypted cellular communications in a fairly wide radius by effectively mimicking a cell phone tower. As general awareness of the capability and presence of these devices increases, American protesters may proactively choose end-to-end encrypted platforms to organize and communicate with one another.
Second, we might turn our attention to nondemocratic regimes with high rates of smartphone and end-to-end encrypted messaging use. Myanmar is a particular point of interest, as it is currently one of the fastest growing markets for smartphones in the world, and is one of the only countries outside of China where Facebook is not the dominant social platform. Viber, an end-to-end encrypted messaging platform has over twice the usage rate of Facebook, according to a report released by mobile device research firm OnDeviceResearch. With almost 80% of respondents saying they use Viber, compared to just 27% for Facebook, and over 70% of respondents saying they use their mobile phone as their primary source of local and global news, Myanmar could be a case where a revolution will be whispered, not televised or tweeted.
To conclude, increasing awareness of certain governments’ broad surveillance policies has lead to the development and adoption of secure private messaging applications. In the future, as cryptographic technology improves, it could be possible to see entirely encrypted versions of social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter, however that is, in all likelihood, a long way off. In the meantime, the landscape of consumer-ready encrypted and decentralized communication options continues to grow and change at an incredibly rapid pace. This is an emerging trend to watch very closely.