In Depth

Bridgefy: how Hong Kong protesters are using Bluetooth to dodge surveillance

Privacy app lets users message each other without Wi-Fi connection

Pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong are using a new private messaging service in a bid to avoid being tracked by local authorities. 

San Francisco-based firm Bridgefy’s app doesn’t require a Wi-Fi connection to operate, instead allowing users to chat with each other through a more private Bluetooth connection. 

Hong Kong protestors “keen to avoid any interference” from the local authorities have flocked to Bridgefy in droves, Sky News reports. Indeed, data from app analysts Apptopia shows that downloads of the software has surged by almost 4,000% in the past two months.

But while Bridgefy may add a layer of security, some experts warn that the technology isn’t foolproof.

What is Bridgefy?

Unlike chat apps such as WeChat - China’s equivalent to Facebook - and WhatsApp, Bridgefy is an instant massaging service that doesn’t rely on Wi-Fi or mobile networks to operate.

Instead, the service “create its networks” through Bluetooth, says TechCrunch. Although the technology has a maximum range of 100 metres (330ft), Bridgefy uses user handsets to boost - or bridge - the connection to other devices. 

It’s not just a peer-to-peer service, either. The app can also be used by a single user to spread messages to groups of people in the nearby vicinity. 

In the case of the ongoing protests in the Chinese-ruled territory, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators can communicate with each other and arrange gatherings via Bridgefy thanks to their close proximity to each other, bypassing the need to create dedicated WhatsApp or WeChat groups.

How is the government tracking protestors?

Although there’s been no official word on how authorities are digitally monitoring the protests, reports suggest that Beijing is using tech systems to keep a close eye on the demonstrations. 

According to South China Morning Post, images of the protests posted on WeChat by users in Hong Kong are not visible to recipients in mainland China. Posts on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, are also allegedly being censored. 

And in June, the BBC reported that WeChat users who discussed the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations were blocked from the platform unless they scanned their face.

By contrast, Bridgefy’s Bluetooth underpinnings makes it far harder for the local authorities to keep track of protesters, as the app dodges the Wi-Fi networks that are supposedly monitored by the government.

Is Bridgefy really hidden from the authorities?

In a word, no. Although authorities will find it more difficult to track users, Bridgefy isn’t totally protected from the local government’s surveillance systems. 

Speaking to the BBC, Professor Alan Woodward, a computer security expert at the University of Surrey, said: “With any peer-to-peer network, if you have the know-how, you can sit at central points of it and monitor which device is talking to which device and this metadata can tell you who is involved in chats.

“And, of course, anyone can join the mesh [local network] and it uses Bluetooth, which is not the most secure protocol. The authorities might not be able to listen in quite so easily but I suspect that they will have the means of doing it.”

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