Hong Kong Teaches Risks in Social Media Mobilization

Protesters attend a demonstration demanding Hong Kong’s leaders to step down and withdraw the extradition bill, in Hong Kong, China, June 16, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu – RC12BDB5C070

New Orleans       Don’t get me wrong.  Any group of organizers that can pull the trigger and pull out hundreds of thousands, then a million, and then possibly two million protestors on the streets out of a total population of seven million deserve wild praise and total respect.  Such organizers can teach all of us a huge amount about how to do our work and make a difference.  All of which makes it worth following closely the courageous campaign in the autonomous province of Hong Kong to block the order from the central Chinese government to extradite individuals charged with a crime to the mainland for trial, undercutting the Hong Kong judicial system and the self-government of Hong Kong, and potentially its base as a commercial and banking center as well.

Even if you have no interest in the issue, the technical lessons are worth careful study. Undoubtedly social media tools were critical implements to the mobilization, but one of the key lessons involves the perils of relying on social media for both organizers and participants unless precautions are taken.

A secure messaging application popular there called Telegram was bombarded by China in a DDos or denial-of-service attack by multiple computers meant to overwhelm the site with high volume traffic and put it out of business.  The apps founder, Pavel Durov, was quoted saying this kind of attack on Telegram was not unusual.  The New York Times reported that a monitor of a Telegram chat room with 20,000 members was arrested by Hong Kong police even though he was not part of the demonstrations and was in fact miles away at his own home.

The police are using digital tools to track protestors and identify organizers, including facial recognition capabilities, that police are also advocating for wide use in Europe and the United States. Protestors are shielding their faces with masks, hats, and glasses to prevent easy identification that could be used for arrests by police later.  On the mainland, the government often stops protests preemptively by monitoring social media.

Telegram does not have what is called end-to-end encryption on their chat rooms, which the even more popular and widely used WhatsApp has.  Protest organizers have resorted to VPN networks and pay-as-you-go SIM cards and have registered foreign and Google numbers to enter chat rooms or communicate.  To skirt WhatsApp encryption, malware disguised as an app has been found phishing users that the Times reported was likely for spying on organizers.

Protestors have been advised to buy individual tickets on the subway so that digital payment cards would not be tracked.  They have tried to stop people from taking photos of the protests or selfies since once they show up on the internet, they might lead to identification and arrests.

At ACORN, we used to constantly warn, “if you live by the press, you will die by the press,” to underline the principle that the face-to-face work in the streets and neighborhoods was our lifeblood and would keep people together whether the press was good or bad about an action or the organization.  Live by the internet and social media, you die by the internet and social media might be the warning worth heeding from the lessons on the streets of Hong Kong for organizers everywhere.

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Strategies for Dealing with Privacy as a Lost Cause

New Orleans     As Facebook slips off its pedestal of pretense and posturing about its contribution to the common good that has disguised its brutal capitalist commitments and real priorities, it’s worth wondering if claims to protect consumers’ privacy are just more empty promises.  Personal privacy may be just a lost cause and a battle engaged too late.  Many of us use Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Amazon and the rest for work, so we’re simply stuck in the muck of social media:  we can’t get out, so we’re hoping it doesn’t pull us under.

There may be some strategies though.

We could ask the European Union to regulate these companies.  They seem better at it.  In the United States, there’s too much “oh, gee!” and too little “oh my god” from politicians and potential regulators.  Asking the EU to do the job would be cheaper.  We could just enter a “me, too” agreement.  What’s good for them, would be great for us.

One of the priceless ironies is the intramural dispute between Facebook’s Zuckerberg and Apple’s Tim Cook over regulation.  Cook is saying it may be needed now even while he hedges with language about “careful crafting,” which is usually a euphemism for allowing lobbyists to write the regs.  But, look, Apple has to be the most consumer indifferent company in Silicon Valley.  Inexplicably, passwords won’t work.  They control obsolescence by weakening I-Phone batteries.  They jack their prices to try to make their products luxury items around the world.  They believe in privacy so much that they block you from their products after you buy them!

If we can’t go Euro, some people have embraced alter egos and misinformation.  There was an article where Facebook was complaining that saying you were 113 years old for example messed with their algorithms.  Their whine seems to be a mandate to try this strategy.  Monkey-wrenching their algorithms sounds like a way to go to the heart of the beast and get their attention for real!

Multiple identities are anther prospect many have used.  Some are fabricated.  Others use middle names, nicknames, maiden names, nom de guerres, or whatever in order to participate, but to create their own bubble around their privacy.  Facebook claims you can’t have two accounts, but, hey, people are doing it everywhere, so don’t tell me with 2 billion users or the recent headlines that they are on top of their business, ok?

Or, another way you can protect yourself on Facebook, which many young people are doing, is simply never join.  Of course, when they go Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, they defeat the purpose, but the Facebook growth engine is not being fueled by young people in the West, but by new users around the world.

Some of these strategies might work, but believing we still have privacy in the modern world of the internet and social media, come on, really?  If you do, please contact me, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn that I think would be a perfect purchase for you.  Message me on the FB!

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