As throngs of pro-democracy protesters continue to organize in Hong Kong's central business district, many of them are messaging one another through a network that doesn't require cell towers or Wi-Fi nodes. They're using an app called FireChat that launched in March and is underpinned by mesh networking, which lets phones unite to form a temporary Internet. So far, mesh networks have proven themselves quite effective and quickly adopted during times of disaster or political unrest, as they don't rely on existing cable and wireless networks.
In Iraq, tens of thousands of people have downloaded FireChat as the government limits connectivity in an effort to curb ISIS communications. Protesters in Taiwan this spring turned to FireChat when cell signals were too weak and at times nonexistent. And FireChat's popularity is surging in Hong Kong.
About 100,000 users downloaded the free FireChat app between Sunday morning and Monday morning, according to The Wall Street Journal. While there are no reports of cell-network outages so far, student leaders are recommending FireChat for fear authorities may shut off communications.
Gizmodo explains why mesh networks can be critical during tense showdowns with governments: "Mesh networks are an especially resilient tool because there's no easy way for a government to shut them down. They can't just block cell reception or a site address. Mesh networks are like Voldemort after he split his soul into horcruxes (only not evil). Destroying one part won't kill it unless you destroy each point of access; someone would have to turn off Bluetooth on every phone using FireChat to completely break the connection. This hard-to-break connection isn't super important for casual chats, but during tense political showdowns, it could be a lifeline."
And as we have previously reported, Open Garden, the company that made FireChat and an Android mesh networking app also called Open Garden, has bigger ambitions for mesh networking: "Once you build a mesh network ... now you have a network that is resilient, self-healing, cannot be controlled by any central organization, cannot be shut down and is always working," Christophe Daligault, Open Garden's vice president for sales and marketing says. "I think that solves many other drawbacks or challenges of the mobile broadband Internet today." He says none of this would be possible without the rapid spread of smartphones, because that means no extra hardware is needed. "Each [phone] becomes a router and in a sense you're growing the Internet â€” everyone who joins the mesh network creates an extension of the Internet," Daligault says. "In a year or two from now, I think people won't even remember that you had to be on Wi-Fi or get a cell signal to be able to communicate."
But much to Open Garden’s chagrin, its network is also being used to spread false information, exposing one of the weaknesses of FireChat’s open community. Open Garden CMO Christophe Daligault said he’s heard numerous reports of people using FireChat to cause panic or confusion, and he’s witnessed two examples himself in the app’s chatrooms. In one instance he saw someone posting messages that Hong Kong police had started firing real bullets. Another message stated that the Chinese Army was descending on protest centers with assault rifles, Daligault said.
Open Garden doesn’t know if those messages were sent by government or police agent trying to break up the protests or just by someone with a sick sense of humor. “We have no way of knowing,” Daligault said.
FireChat’s open community model means anyone can participate in a conversation and hide their identity if they fear retribution, making an ideal organization tool for protesters and dissidents. But as the Hong Kong situation shows, it can be used just as easily by authorities to listen in on protesters and even anonymously spread disinformation. Open Gardens is hoping to rectify that situation by adding features that will make FireChat more secure, Daligault said.
First, Open Garden plans to launch a verified identity program similar to Twitter’s. Anyone public persona can get their real name linked to their FireChat user name, lending accountability to any message posted by that user. Daligault said that the update won’t be ready for another three to four weeks, but anyone interested can start the process by sending an email request to email@example.com.
More significantly, Open Garden is developing a private chatroom feature for FireChat, alloying a user to take conversations off of the open forum and into an encrypted channel. The project is a much longer term one, though, Daligault said. The problem is maintaining encryption for both off-grid and on-grid messaging. For this to work Off-grid, the devices will have to set up encryption between themselves on the fly, which is a technical issue Open Garden still has to solve, Daligault said.
The protests in Hong Kong are drawing a lot of attention to FireChat around the world. In the last two days, FireChat has seen 290,000 downloads (about 90,000 outside of Hong Kong), and it’s being used to discuss and express support for the protests both within and without Hong Kong.
The NSA, FBI, CIA, Google, Windows and police will pass draconian laws against this system, but that will only temporarily chase off the timid.