FireChat, the app supporting Hong Kong protests

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Story highlights

A smartphone app called FireChat emerges as the messaging tool of choice for Hong Kong protesters

“Off-grid” apps work by creating their own network outside of the internet.

Within two weeks, the company recorded 500,000 downloads in Hong Kong alone

Other emerging services are leveraging the same “mesh network” technology


The revolution will not be broadcast on television, but will be broadcast via tweets, instant messages or, in the case of Hong Kong, mesh networks like FireChat.

FireChat – an “off-grid” smartphone app – emerged this month as the technological glue holding Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement together and a powerful weapon in the hands of mass movements, dissidents and protesters.

The app works by creating its own network outside of the internet, relying solely on the Bluetooth or Wi-Fi link that exists between one phone and another.

Unlike mobile and Internet networks, which can become strained or break down as users overload the system, mesh networks like FireChat work better the more participants there are.

“We were almost forced to use it at the beginning of the protests because there were too many people in the protest area,” said Pamela Lamb, a democracy activist with Occupy Central. “There were so many people that the mobile phone network became very slow.” . “FireChat doesn’t require data to work. A lot of people were downloading it.”

Open Garden, the company that developed the application, initially struggled to keep up with its newfound popularity and added capacity as news of the app spread from Hong Kong to other parts of the world.

unexpectedd success

For a startup that was only founded in March of this year, these numbers were impressive.

In the first two weeks of the protests, from September 27th to October 10th, the service generated 500,000 downloads in Hong Kong alone (61% on Android and 39% on iOS), 10.2 million chat sessions, and 160 Ten thousand chat rooms were recorded.

“We didn’t expect this and we were very surprised,” Christophe Darigaud, FireChat’s head of marketing, told CNN. “We saw this huge spike in services and realized something really big was happening.

“We’re seeing spikes everywhere around the world right now, and there are two possible reasons for this. Two, there are people who take advantage of it, and two, there are people who just want to know what all the fuss is about.”

Chinese users in particular are using the app to show their support for the movement from as far away as Australia and the United States.

Now that the buzz has subsided, downloads are on the decline, but activity is on the rise and chat sessions are shorter as people continue to communicate and focus on important information, Darigo said. said.

“What this tells us is that a significant number of people are sticking with this policy,” Darrigault said.

“Giant megaphone”

Unlike other messaging applications, FireChat is not limited to your circle of users. Anyone can see what happens in FireChat.

“It’s like a giant megaphone,” he said.

“You can be in a location and respond to a message saying I’m in this exact location and I need a bottle of water right now, and someone you don’t know is coming with that bottle.

“It’s even harder to do that on Facebook or Whatsapp, because it limits communication to people you know.”

Micha Benoliel, co-founder and CEO of Open Garden, happened to be in Hong Kong on a layover when the protests began and extended her stay to get first-hand feedback on the service.

real voice

One of the protesters’ complaints was that anyone, including opponents of the Occupy movement, could read the traffic. Since then, FireChat has added a validation component that stamps messages as coming from a specific user or group.

“Obviously there was misinformation being spread on FireChat and people were posting threatening messages in an attempt to persuade them to go home,” Daligote said.

FireChat has become a popular app in Hong Kong and had similar success during protests in Taiwan earlier this year, but Darrigault said the app was not designed as a messaging tool for protesters. .

“What we envisioned was a service that would provide communications to people in places with poor connectivity and high population density – cities like New Delhi and Mexico City,” he said.

more options

FireChat is just one of many apps currently competing in the mesh network services space (Serval Mesh, Commotion, Storymaker).

A Russian mesh networking app called Telegram was put into use in South Korea in May after the government announced a crackdown in response to misinformation spread on the country’s homegrown messaging service KakaoTalk.

The service, which allows messages and chats to be deleted after a certain amount of time, has reportedly been used by 35 million people.

Private messaging is one of the options FireChat is developing following extensive beta testing the service underwent during the Hong Kong protests.

“We are working on adding private messaging with encryption. But this will take months, not weeks,” Darrigault said. “This is much more difficult than other communication apps because you have to make this work off-grid.”

FireChat was a useful device for relaying information and encouragement during the early mass protests in Hong Kong, but it became less useful as Occupy moved into a cat-and-mouse game with the police.

“The problem with FireChat is that anyone around you can receive your messages, including the police,” explained Hong Kong-based student Michelle Zheng. “If you’re discussing deployment over FireChat, law enforcement knows right away where your weak spots are.”

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