This past week the Chinese Government took a cue from Putin’s playbook. Just as Putin used smartphones to try to socially engineer the direction of the Ukrainian protests, so too is the CCP using technology to try to influence Hong Kong protests. All the methods Putin used to monitor cellphone locations are available to the Chinese Government. But the CCP has gone one step further by creating a fake smartphone app that can track the physical location of a person’s phone if downloaded. It can also spy on phone calls and messages.
What does the CCP hope to achieve with this phishing scam? And how exactly do they think it’s going to work?
There are at least two possible goals that the CCP hopes to achieve with this scam. The first is to convince protesters to leave their phones at home. This would greatly reduce the protesters’ ability to coordinate their activities and aid in the CCP’s efforts to censor all news, images and videos coming from the protests. The second is to convince the protesters themselves to go home. This would reduce the number of citizens on the street and help dissipate the movement.
Neither of these strategies is likely to work. Protesters have no reason to leave their phones at home, or to return home themselves. Any individual who has been out on the street with a phone this week knows that they have already been identified with the protest movement. This is true whether they have downloaded the fake smartphone app or not. Their best bet at this point is to forge ahead with the movement in the hope that it gains concessions from the government, not punishment. Cell phones – with their ability to mobilize citizens and communicate information – are the best way for protesters to achieve this.
The events of the last week in Hong Kong remind us that the Chinese government is unlikely to win the technology war with dissenters no matter what it does. The CCP can erect a great firewall, block images on social media, hand censor tweets, and try to trick citizens into downloading malware, but they will never be able to block all of the media all of the time. Not only will some messages get through these barriers, but the speed of technological innovation means that new ways to circumvent government censorship will constantly emerge. Hong Kong’s demonstrators, for example, are constantly finding new ways to communicate out of the prying eyes of the government.
The CCP will try to win the information tug-of-war, but they won’t succeed. There are just too many smart people – both inside and outside of China – who are heavily motivated to get their messages out and have the technological ability to do so. The Russian government wasn’t able to stop protesters in Kiev with information technology and neither will the CCP.