In Hong Kong, protesters are fighting to remain anonymous

For five months, images of Hong Kong's leaderless protests poured into the city and the rest of the world. Now the police treat every protest as one illegal meetingAnyone found on the street can be found guilty under the laws of the colonial era public assembly. It is impossible to arrest the entire crowd, but if you are identified on the camera, you can be selected for punishment. More than 2,000 people have been arrested so far, and parallel out-of-court action has targeted countless others violence, doxxingand online Bullying. It has led to a new struggle about how and when protesters can be identified – and what they can do to remain anonymous.


That struggle for anonymity extends to some of the most famous figures in the movement. On August 11, a young woman was shot in the face with a circle of "beanbag" that broke through her glasses and blinded her. To protect her body and anonymity, she wore a gas mask, black balaclava and helmet with & # 39;do not aim at the heads of the demonstratorsWritten on it. (Her glasses were left on the street with the bloody projectile still in it.) After the release of a video in which she thanked her supporters and expressed the desire to remain anonymous, the police began Search medical records to identify her until her lawyers successfully complete one order protect her privacy.

While she fought to remain anonymous, her fame also gave her power. Hong Kongers learned about her injury almost immediately because it was broadcast on live streams, one of the subtle but important differences in how technology has changed since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. While only Sony phones were able to stream live in 2014, we have a GitHub today page compile up to nine different live streams and even livestream translations of those live streams. Her injury fueled the # EyeForHongKong hashtag and a & # 39;an eye for an eye& # 39; Slogan, who was shouted at the city airport the following weekend.

Faced with 10-year prison sentences when caught, front line demonstrators hide themselves with umbrellas, masks, balaclavas, and protective headgear so that even friends or family cannot identify them based on a photo. Sometimes protesters go after the cameras to protect their identity: more than 900 CCTV cameras & # 39; s have been destroyed since July. When protesters stormed the Legislative Council building on July 1, the first step was to destroy the cameras, followed by a rush to the security room to destroy the system where the images were stored.

After masks, umbrellas & # 39; s are the most commonly used tool for hiding from cameras, mostly after the police have lifted their warning flags. (If you do not leave after the first warning flag goes up, a one-year punishment for illegal meeting is imposed if caught on the scene or later identified.) It is common to see three to four people umbrellas. , often one in each hand, for everyone sprays revolutionary slogans or paints a Molotov cocktail on the street.

The recent mask ban has raised the stakes even further. Protesters find safety in numbers, so the police try to thin out crowds with gas and rubber bullets before they charge to grab as many people as possible. Most people being detained are detained for 48 hours before being released. Before the ban, a large proportion of the people arrested would be released without charge, depending on whether the police could see them in photos or videos. But with masks worn by almost every participant, most demonstrators can now be charged on the spot, leading to record-breaking arrest rates in recent protests.

There are many other ways in which government-friendly troops can strike back. The organizer of the two massive marches in June has now been attacked twice, most of them recently by a group that hit him with hammers. An activist I know hid their family for a few weeks this week after being followed in town, receiving death threats and sharing our own district advisor's conspiracy theories about him on Facebook. Two acquaintances are indexed on one website committed to revealing the personal information of activists, journalists, politicians and everyone associated with the "Revolution of our time" in Hong Kong. A police officer knocked on one of their doors to make it clear that he knew where they lived. Their child's face appeared in a video posted by Chinese state media, which has also encouraged doxxing and requested contributions of the public. All three say that personal information has been released that could only have come from the Hong Kong government.


Even protesters who come home without being arrested are not necessarily safe. Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people will face a future of unknown retaliation for participation in the movement, online support or refusal to condemn the movement. The risks range from personal and family safety to insecure jobs to fear of future arrest. The Hong Kong Police Force has shown a nervous dedication to the task of arresting people on the street, finding evidence for those who have already been arrested, and gathering evidence about people who thought they came home safely.

The same fear of identification also extends to digital space. Protesters have started to lock their accounts or take pseudonyms after using their real names for years. Public workers, teachers or employees at a pro-government company can easily be fired if the "wrong" person finds evidence of participation or pro-protest positions. A series of comments in a private Facebook group ensured that Cathay Pacific employees were added laid off. A lawyer in training almost had his legal career derailed when his employer reported an anti-police post on Facebook to the Supreme Court.

Faced with that intimidation, the huge volume of digital records can be overwhelming. You can bring down a camera, but not the dozens of live streams that keep the protests in the attention of the public. Masks can block face recognition, but they cannot erase years of messages on social media and cross-linked accounts. The people who built these networks didn't think about how they could work in countries where public gatherings can be punishable or a connected online identity can be a reason for arrest. Now some protesters realize too late that their digital footprint is difficult to erase.

Trey Smith is the pseudonym of a writer who lives in Hong Kong.