In the Hong Kong pro-democracy riots that have taken place over the past 5 days, protesters have been well equipped with basic gear to counter the elements. Armed with food, water, goggles, face masks, plastic ponchos and umbrellas, the rebels are fully prepared to fight waves of tear gas, pepper spray, and total exhaustion. But recently, an unexpected tool has been added to the mix. A smartphone app used at Burning Man and other music festivals has seen a tremendous surge in popularity since Sunday.
The free app is called FireChat, and it allows users to chat over Bluetooth without a WiFi or a cellular connection. Launched in March by a small, private company called Open Garden, the platform was almost solely used at music festivals – primarily Burning Man. Users found the app to be extremely useful in these environments, because of the lack of cell phone service that tends to plague large festivals. This poor service is usually due to many devices fighting for a signal in one place, but can also be an issue when events are held in remote locations. Being that Burning Man is held in the desert, FireChat was a popular choice for festival-goers trying connect throughout the concerts.
Seeing as Burning Man ended a month ago, Open Garden certainly did not expect the 100,000 downloads of the app that occurred in Hong Kong this week. The explosion, though seemingly random, has been traced back to the pro-democracy riots that began on Friday.
It is still unclear how many rioters are using FireChat, but the increase in downloads is staggering. Apparently, leaders of the pro-democracy movement began encouraging its use this past week, because they suspect that authorities will shut down the cellular network in the area. This would cause serious disruption in the protests, and prevent organizers from communicating effectively.
The Chinese government is known for its stringent control on communications within their borders. They are especially strict in Hong Kong, which is governed as a Special Administrative Region. On Monday, it was reported that the Chinese government shut down Instagram in various parts of the country. FireChat’s Bluetooth connection has been instrumental in communication this week, so protesters are hoping it will not be the next one to go.