Communications: Firechat and China

firechat-chinaGovernments in trouble like to keep a lid on things.

They know that if people have the ability to communicate, the people may organize – against the government.  So they clamp down.

Historically, that was done via the post office to newspapers and letters – the Internet and email of the day.  It even happened here in America in the years leading up to the Revolution.

China – a long-time oppressor of most rights – is at it again in Hong Kong.  The people of one of the most prosperous per capita pieces of land on the planet, were upset that China wasn’t living up to its promise of free, democratic elections.

Twitter helped power the Arab Spring in 2012. Now the pro-democracy demonstrations setting Hong Kong in motion are being driven by a new kind of mobile technology: an underground messaging app called Fire Chat.

Protests started, and China clamped down again.  They restricted Internet access, banned all news and social media posts about the protests, and flat-out shut down all access to Instagram.

When the Chinese zigged, the protesters zagged!

A massive number of people – north of 100,000 in a 24 hour period – downloaded an app called Firechat.

What is Firechat?

When you send an email or text to your friends, it goes from your device, through the Internet, and ends up in your friend’s inbox or message center.  A similar stream happens with social media, such as postings to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like.

If you cut off that link to the Internet, the information doesn’t flow.

Firechat sidesteps the Internet all together (other than needing it to initially download the app).

What it does is it uses a smart phone’s Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity – not the Internet –  plus other services that reside on the phone, to create a “mesh network”.  This is the new terminology for a peer-to-peer network.  Everyone who is on the network can chat with everyone else that’s on the network.

Weaknesses

Most people use Bluetooth for their wireless headset or other similar tools to use their smartphones.  They also know that Bluetooth has one big weakness:  Distance.  If you get too far away from your Bluetooth-running device, you lose the connection.

The same goes with Firechat.  You need to be within 70 meters of someone on the Firechat mesh network to join the network.

It’s messaging only – no voice communications.

Also, you have no anonymity, other than using a pseudonym when entering the network.

Lastly, anyone can join – including, in this case – members of the Chinese government that are within range of the network.

Strengths

Unlike the Internet – where more users means more traffic, and more congestion – with Firechat, the more users that are in the vicinity of the network, the stronger the network connections get!

Other than by joining the network, you can’t monitor its usage, or shut it down.  When the makers of Firechat were asked how many “conversations” were happening in Hong Kong, they couldn’t answer.  The mesh network is off-the-grid, and can’t be poked, prodded or measured in any way.

Sooooo, the network itself is anonymous, but the users on the network are not.  Get it?

Note that Firechat can also be used in conjunction with the Internet to widen its reach.  Those chats would fall prey to the same censorship and monitoring techniques that could be employed to any Internet-based interaction.

Open Garden – the makers of Firechat – are working as we speak to add encryption to the app, so you can select with whom you want to chat.  And with whom you don’t want to know what you’re discussing.

Uses In America

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of the various alphabet-soup agencies that listen in on all of my calls, emails and Skype conversations.  I’m funny that way.  It goes against my personal independence beliefs.

This might be a good way to do group training or other coordinated activities without anyone listening that you don’t want listening.  Think about it:  If the guys in the Black Helicopters are close enough to join your mesh network, the game is over for you anyways!

In visiting their site, I also saw mention of a “tethering” technology they’ve developed that has some interest to me.  Tethering, for those of you who don’t know, allows you to use your smart phone to connect to the Internet (3G or 4G), and have a laptop or tablet “piggy back” on the connection – thereby also gaining access to the Internet.

The smartphone networks charge a pretty penny for this service.  Open Garden’s technology lets you bypass this, uhm, inconvenience.

What Next?

Time to sit back and observe.  I want to see how China reacts to this threat to their hegemony, and how the people of Hong Kong react.

Listen and learn.

Users in China may find encryption even more useful. Chinese ISPs began blocking around two thirds of FireChat’s users from Sept. 3, Daligault says, throttling the app’s growth. Since last week though, more Chinese smartphone users have begun using mobile VPNS (virtual private networks) to get around the blocks and the app’s growth rate appears to have stabilized there.

I love seeing new technologies and innovation spring forth during times of crisis.  The people of Hong Kong see their very way of life being hindered and obstructed by Big Government coming in and degrading their personal independence.

They see oppression on the horizon, and aren’t sitting quietly while it happens.  They are using innovative technology to communicate with like-minded people to keep their movement going forward.

Godspeed, Hong Kong.  Keep zagging!

***

One of the most over-looked parts of most folks preparedness plan is communications.  We take for granted the ability to pull our smartphone out of our pocket, and make a call, text someone or engage in a Skype video chat.

What if that goes away?

How would you communicate with your loved ones if phone lines were down?  Or cell towers had been taken out by an EMP?  Or someone went all, “Red Dawn” on us and shut off the Internet as part of their plans?

Something like Firechat may have a place in your prep plans.   Simpler is sometimes better.

 

Comments are closed.