Observers

Will protests of the future end up looking like lightsaber battles? That seems possible based on recent videos showing protesters in Hong Kong using lasers to confuse and temporarily blind police officers and to interfere with their cameras. This is the protesters’ latest strategy to thwart what they see as attempts by Hong Kong officials to set up a similar surveillance system to mainland China.

On July 28, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong demonstrators gathered in the Sheung Wan business district to protest the government. As night fell, clashes broke out between protesters and security forces. Both sides threw various projectiles and tear gas canisters. Some protesters pointed green and blue laser beams at riot police through billowing tear gas. "It’s like something out of a sci-fi movie," tweeted one user.





 

"The protesters want to keep the police from photographing their faces and identifying them"

Ines K is a 26-year-old Hong Kong designer who has been a regular participant in the protests.
 

Recently, I’ve been seeing protestors using lasers often, especially at night. They point them at the police officers to show other protesters where the security forces are located. They also use them to signal when the police look like they are going to launch an offensive or take a picture of the protestors, for example. The main idea is just to make life difficult for the police.

 

Photos of the green laser pointers used by protestors at an unauthorised protest in the Yuen Long district on July 27. This photo was shared on Twitter.
 
Some protesters also try to interfere with the sensors on police cameras so that they can’t take pictures of demonstrators’ faces  footage that police use to later identify and arrest protest participants.
 
This Twitter account is run by Hong Kong protesters.
 
I think that the protesters have been using this technique more and more as the movement has grown. I’ve also noticed that more protestors bring masks to cover their faces during demonstrations. And there is a lot of discussion about this in online forums. 
 
This series of photos, shared in a discussion group on the encrypted messenger app Telegram, demonstrates how to turn a t-shirt into a balaclava.


There is actually an online shop geared towards Hong Kong protesters where they sell a selection of items to help a person to mask their identify including masks and hoods. For the time being, however, they haven’t yet stocked laser pointers.

An effective technique for rendering a camera useless
These two photos come from an experiment conducted to determine how effectively laser pointers could temporarily disable camera sensors. (Photo: Michael Naimark, 2002)


In a detailed blog post published back in 2002, Michael Naimark, an Silicon Valley artist and technologist, explained how even a cheap, low-intensity laser pointer placed several dozen metres from a camera could ruin the shot.

A laser can also be used to ruin a camera’s sensors, a fact that the Hong Kong protesters seem well aware of, as shown in the message below, posted on a forum called LIHKG.



"I heard that camera sensors can be easily damaged if a laser beam targets them directly. Brothers who have green lasers, try to target the person [the police officer] who is holding the camera," wrote one user on LIHKG on July 28.
 
Is Hong Kong building its own Chinese-style surveillance state?


On social media, many claim that lasers can also be used to disrupt the facial recognition technology used by the police. This form of advanced video analysis is used to identify people even in a large group and to keep them under surveillance.

American political scientist Iam Bremmer posted about how Hong Kong protesters were using lasers to thwart Chinese facial recognition technology.
 
 
Facial recognition technology is widely used in China, where the state keeps millions of people under surveillance through a network of surveillance cameras and assigns them a 'social credit' score based on their behaviour.
 
 
Because Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous territory with a distinct government and judicial system, it hasn’t experienced the same level of surveillance as mainland China.
 

"The police are not technologically advanced enough to carry out facial recognition"

Facial recognition technology is in use in some places in Hong Kong  for example, it has been officially installed at Hong Kong’s international airport.

However, according to Charles Mok, a Hong Kong-based internet entrepreneur and IT advocate who represents the IT constituency on the Hong Kong Legislative Council, "the police don’t have the technology to identify protesters in real time".

 
At first, the protesters were using these lasers to temporarily blind the police. However, they’ve since realised that they can also use lasers to disrupt their video recordings, which police us to identify protestors. The police can later cite this footage as proof.
 
In the footage above, you can see a police officer holding a small camera to film protesters (on the left side of the screen). This video was posted on Twitter on July 30. According to the blogger Hong Kong Hermit, this is the standard equipment used by the Hong Kong police.
 
Protesters are using lasers to prevent police officers from recognising individuals in the crowd, but I actually don’t think that the police have the capacity to carry out full-on facial recognition. They just aren’t technologically advanced enough. They record the footage and then, later, they analyse the videos either manually or with the help of software.
 
"The government seems to want to imitate China"
 
As part of my role, I asked the government if the police were using facial recognition technology and they said no. But I’m not sure that they are telling the whole truth. I think the police are currently experimenting and that they will soon get their hands on more advanced systems for video analysis.

Our government seems to want to imitate China and its surveillance system but it is coming up against fierce resistance from the population. Many people are deeply mistrustful of the government and the police and ask them difficult questions about the surveillance cameras already installed around Hong Kong and their Chinese manufacturers.


Protests transformed into a movement against Chinese influence
 

For more than four months now, Hong Kongers have been protesting against their government and what they see as a worrying rapprochement with China. On June 16, a stunning two million protesters took to the streets  which represents more than 25% of the entire population.

The protest movement was sparked back in February with a proposed amendment that would make it possible to extradite Hong Kongers who committed crimes in mainland China back there to be tried. People were afraid that this proposed law would endanger separatist and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, who would risk prosecution under the Chinese judicial system, which is linked to the Chinese communist party. The proposed law has since been suspended. 


This article was written by Liselotte Mas (@liselottemas).