What is Bridgefy? The app keeping Hong Kong protestors connected

4 Sep 2019354 Views

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Protests in Hong Kong on 16 June. Image: paulwongkwan/Depositphotos

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This week, Forbes reported that Bridgefy usage has increased by 3,685pc over the past 60 days.

As tensions in Hong Kong have mounted in recent weeks, protestors have become increasingly concerned about both censorship and eavesdropping when it comes to digital communications.

In August, there were reports that activists in Hong Kong were beginning to organise protests through less conventional means of communicating, such as Apple AirDrop and Tinder.

On one occasion, according to Business Insider, protestors were meeting in a park and police soon interrupted the assembly.

The group reportedly told police they were gathering to play Pokémon GO, but meanwhile they were discussing protest methods and sharing security tips on how to deal with the police through the app’s location-based chat feature.

Mesh networks

In mid-August, there were reports that many Hong Kong citizens were using off-the-grid messaging app FireChat to communicate.

Prior to the Hong Kong protests, FireChat was typically used by the likes of festival-goers who needed to communicate to people nearby. The app relies on a wireless mesh network, which means that it enables users to connect via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or Apple’s Multipeer Connectivity framework without an internet connection, enabling peer-to-peer contact.

The app allows users to send messages without signal by bouncing messages to phones nearby that are using the app, rather than bouncing them to a satellite and back again.

As long as someone is in the same mesh network as you, private messages can be sent through a chain of other users in the mesh network. Messages hop from phone to phone until they reach the intended recipient.

This system works best while users are within 100 metres of one another, but it can also be used to message people much further away.

However, FireChat and similar mesh networking apps weren’t exactly designed with civil protests in mind.

Using them in these scenarios became popular in Iraq in 2014 after restrictions on internet use were introduced. The technology was also used during the 2014 protests in Hong Kong and the 2015 protests in Ecuador.

In May 2016, mesh networking was used by aid workers in the Philippines who needed to contact each other during rescue work and disaster relief, when networks in Manila were down due to weather conditions.

Bridgefy

While Hong Kong protestors predominantly used FireChat in the 2014 protests, this time around activists are opting for a similar app, Bridgefy.

Bridgefy, which is a Mexican start-up based in San Francisco, spoke to Latam List on 23 August about how there has been a very significant uptake of users on the platform in Hong Kong in recent weeks.

The company’s CEO, Jorge Rios, said: “In Hong Kong, we have seen massive peaks in downloads since the protests started. We have had more than 75,000 downloads in the past seven days, just from Hong Kong.

“This explosion of downloads even caught the attention of local media, who have been covering the messaging app’s usefulness during the protest. Many people are discovering the app through this coverage and realising that Bridgefy technology powers many other apps to function without internet.”

As well as offering private messaging functionality, Bridgefy also allows users to post public broadcasts to anyone within range, regardless of whether they are in a user’s contact list or not.

On 2 September, Forbes reported that Bridgefy usage has increased by 3,685pc over the past 60 days.

Speaking to Forbes about the sudden spike, Rios said  “It’s a safe way for people to communicate with there being very little risk of messages being read by unwanted eyes.”

This means that the app is not just useful for helping protestors remain in correspondence in the event of an internet shutdown, but it also keeps information they are sharing relatively secure.

Protests in Hong Kong on 16 June. Image: paulwongkwan/Depositphotos

Kelly Earley is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com