As Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement endures into a second week, an increasing body of evidence suggests Hong Kong and Chinese authorities are turning to data mining to try to thwart the young campaigners.
At the entrance to Hong Kong’s Admiralty metro station, in the heart of the business district, a spot now nicknamed “Charging Corner” is where eight activists form an orderly queue, each one clutching a mobile telephone.
Some of these campaigners have been on the streets for more than a week without electricity, but their smartphones stay charged. Activists drop off their handsets here for recharging on a unique USB device developed by 22-year-old Sirius Lee.
The public health student, sitting amid a mass of fluorescent wiring, demonstrates the system for charging 80 telephones from just one electric socket.
“Every single cable and port is numbered. We tell them which port they are using, and when they come back to us, they tell us the port and we verify by checking the telephone number. It’s mutual trust - even though their phones are full of data: photos, contact[s],” said Lee.
Up to 500 people a day have been using the free service.
For opponents of the demonstrators, these handsets represent valuable information, with names, addresses and information about how the protest movement organizes and motivates its followers.
This week, VOA has reported on how Chinese-scripted malware is lifting data from Android and Apple products in Hong Kong.
Legislator Charles Mok, who represents the local IT sector, said the development of such viruses and Trojans could be state-sanctioned.
“I was told by our security experts that it is very sophisticated. And people do have a tendency once that happens to use the term ‘state-sponsored attack’ and so on,” said Mok.
China’s state-sponsored cyber hacking has become a source of tension with Washington, and this week the director of the FBI said Beijing is “at the top of the list” of countries using such tactics to attack U.S. corporations and government agencies. China has accused Washington of the same.
Even non-Chinese data applications are apparently being adopted by Beijing to undermine the Hong Kong democracy campaign. On Sunday, local media reported young working class Hong Kongers being offered up to $65, via Whatsapp, to stir up trouble at protest sites. Those funds were traceable back to Beijing-affiliated sources, alleged the South China Morning Post newspaper.
Of equal concern to Mok is the fact that Hong Kong police officers have confiscated protesters’ telephones during their arrest, including a device belonging to student leader Joshua Wong.
These devices have not been returned. Again, Mok worries this is a state-sanctioned move to acquire access to sensitive personal data about the protesters and their networks.
“We’re very outraged. Our lawyers are trying to figure out ways to see how we can stop the police doing this in future,” said Mok.
He advised students who might be arrested carrying a cellphone to break their devices apart.
“Take out the removable parts. Request they be put in separate buckets so effectively they become separate pieces of evidence which, by law, they’re not supposed to put back together,” said Mok.
Many activists operate under the assumption that their phone activity is already being monitored. But 28-year-old software engineer Karen Chung said their cause will not be abandoned out of such fears.
“I think it’s risky if we exchange [digital] information in this area. I haven’t installed any apps from a China background but, of course, I am very angry,” said Chung.
Some computer hackers are fighting back against Hong Kong authorities. Last week, the “Anonymous” activist group announced a campaign targeting the Hong Kong government in retaliation for its treatment of the pro-democracy protesters. Police this week said they have arrested five suspected local hackers accused of cyber attacks against Hong Kong government websites.