Hong Kong's cyber battlefield

The digital space has become a crucial battleground for Hong Kong’s high-tech Occupy protestors.

The past weekend saw the Occupy Central movement take a surreal turn, almost mutating into Occupy Tsim Sha Tsui as gangsters swelled the streets of this traditional triad turf and Hong Kongers witnessed sights rarely seen since the Seventies.

Rumours have been circulating that the triads conspired with elements of the police force in an attempt to violently suppress protestors. The ‘thin blue line’ responsible for upholding law and order in society was blurred by what appeared to be a dirty tricks campaign. Even to cast the incident under the best possible light, the police proved incapable of enforcing law and order against the mob. Cops stood by as the protestors were beaten, sexually molested and harassed.

Another sinister echo of Tiananmen came in the form of the exposure of a young police officer masquerading as a student. In the face of an climate of fear, somehow Hong Kongers still manage to see the funny side: jokes satirizing the suspiciously close relationship between the police and mafia quickly deluged social media. One wag pointed out that it would have been more cost effective for the police to have hired goons than to pay one of their own to pose as a student.

In stark contrast to the police’s alleged collaboration with the mob, so far the protest movement appears to be disciplined and one of the most sophisticated of its kind in recent history in terms of its use of technology, including the internet, broadband wireless, smart phone multimedia and even commercially available mini-drones.

Experimental apps such as FireChat, which uses peer-to-peer "mesh messaging" to enable communication between nearby users via Bluetooth and Wifi -- even when centralized mobile services are unavailable -- have found a new testing ground in Hong Kong as overnight the city became the frontline for a new cyber ‘cold war’ in Asia.

While their opponents have ready access to many of the levers of power and undoubtedly maintain overwhelming technological supremacy in this cyber war, creative Hong Kong activists have invented a system of codes and hashtags to evade computer programs that filter forbidden keywords or jam social media like Facebook by incessantly reposting randomized strings of old updates.

Hong Kong student protestors have ingeniously used popular Japanese “Emoji”emoticons as covert means to evade surveillance.

On the other hand, with exceptions the hacking and cyber warfare presumably conducted by the PLA – the Hong Kong government has neither the capacity or legal power to conduct defense or intelligence gathering activities. And in any case its cabinet has already retreated from their offices in Central to the Chief Executive’s official residence- has been at times about as crude and heavy handed as the deployment of triads, leading to speculation that it is already out of control. 

The bizarre paralysis inflicted on the IT systems of entire HK government departments could be a case in point. Privately people point their finger at geeky student democracy activists such as the ‘Code4HK’ coalition. Or amidst the fog of tear gas, misinformation and disinformation, could it be a PLA conspiracy? 

At the same time as the hacking revelations were announced in a government press conference, Xinhua chief correspondent asked: ‘Is it true that this is the biggest cyber attack Hong Kong has ever had, and is the government of Hong Kong powerless to prevent such attacks?’

Is it really credible that a group of Hong Kong students are capable of pulling off the biggest cyber attack in history against the HK government?

However, such a Herculean effort is probably unnecessary -- just like in conventional warfare what will determine the outcome of a cyber war is usually not technology, tricks or even military hardware, but ultimately the battle for hearts and minds. In Tibet decades of oppressive central government policies deploying the full military might of the PLA have not succeeded in pacifying a population that is only one third the size of Hong Kong’s  -- even after you count the waves of recent government-sponsored economic immigration.

Moreover, since no individual person can see every facet of the complicated matrix of reality in its entirety, people will make up their own minds as to where the balance of truth lies based on what they see and hear with their own eyes and ears.

For this reason, sending in the mob last weekend, with or without police collaboration, could turn out to have been a grave error that witnessed by hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers and by an even greater number of people around the world via social media. The price the Hong Kong government  will pay for this remains to be seen.