Meet FireChat – the ‘off-grid message app’ that’s powering the Hong Kong protests

The 2011 London riots had Blackberry Messenger (a very bad idea as RIM later cooperated with the police to help catch rioters), the Arab Spring had Twitter, Turkish protesters used VPN, and now the pro-democracy Occupy protesters have FireChat.

FireChat is a mesh networking app for iOS and Android phones, and has gained popularity among protesters as it allows them to chat, meet up, and organize even when there is no phone or internet signal. Devices running FireChat can connect to nearby devices via Bluetooth, creating an ad-hoc network that is limited only by the number of its members.

With over 100,000 new signups in Hong Kong over the last 24hours, and 800,000 chat sessions registered, it is proving an invaluable tool for protesters, who due to the huge numbers of crowds gathering in the center of Hong Kong, are unable to access regular phone or internet networks. Micha Benoliel, one of the app’s creators, explained to the Guardian that,

‘Usually, the more people there are in the same location, the less connectivity you get, but with our system, it’s the opposite.

However, although FireChat has been used before on a smaller scale by protesters in Taiwan, Iran and Iraq, it has serious limitations as a privacy tool. For a start, there is nothing to prevent the police joining in the network, so Benoliel recommends avoiding the use of real names and not sharing secrets.

We are further concerned, however, that the permissions required are frankly rather scary, and its US based parent company, Open Garden, offers no privacy policy.

In addition to this,

FireChat uses automatic abuse detection. Inappropriate use of FireChat can result in your IP address being temporarily banned from the service.

… which suggests that chats are monitored.

It should be noted, however, that as Open Garden is a US based company, it is very unlikely to cooperate with the Hong Kong or Chinese governments against its protester users, so there is no reason to doubt (at least here) Benoliel’s statement that,

Our mission has always been freedom of speech, to help information to spread. So this is perfect.

Douglas Crawford I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. You can now follow me on Twitter - @douglasjcrawf.

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