Decades ago, protesting aircraft noise flightpath changes at Heathrow Airport near London, resident protesters simply stayed home. All the phone number exchanges in and around Heathrow—including all baggage handling, security, emergency services, hanger lines, refueling operations, and air traffic control—were within two sets of main prefix numbers. That meant there were only numbers equal to 9,999 times 2. All protesters had to do was allocate a handful of numbers to  a couple of thousand protesters who idly called each of those numbers all day long – and Heathrow ground to a halt. 

Did it work? Sure, for one day, maybe two, but the assumption was that people would get bored of running up a phone bill and protests would simply fade away. That’s what happened. Oh, and lawmakers quickly passed a law prohibiting willfully tying up phone exchanges for protest reasons... so much for free speech.

Today’s protesters in Hong Kong have faced similar knee-jerk revisionist lawmaking. To show solidarity, protesters wore black shirts. Week two of protests a new law kicked in saying that anyone found in or near a demonstration wearing a black shirt would get arrested. Hundreds were. Prior to all that, protesters used umbrellas to shield themselves from the thousands of CCT cameras around Hong Kong. A law prohibiting the use of an umbrella unless it was raining failed to pass muster since a sun shade was a reasonable use as well. Instead, Beijing ramped up face recognition AI software in HK to better be able to identify people without umbrellas or if they were wearing a black shirt. 

When you consider there were, on many days over the past 15+ weeks, hundreds of thousands of protesters each day, Beijing has been collecting millions of data points. And, like the Gestapo of old, the boys in Beijing are excellent record keepers. And anyone with a cell phone, logging into a cell tower near any protest demonstration, has had their number recorded and ID matched to that database. There will be retribution at some stage.

To thwart all this, people have been using encrypted message apps. They started with Umbrella (chosen to match the use of umbrellas) but that was found to be hacked by Beijing. So they changed to WhatsApp and Telegram which seem to be holding. But that record of cell tower initiation gives away the user’s phone number... until someone realized they can buy a “burner” phone and use that as a hub proxy for all the messages from inside a crowd. End of the day’s protest? The burner phone is chucked into the bay. 

As of this date, China has not given up on thwarting the protesters’ demands and the protesters are, unusually, showing great perseverance. They are fighting for what was promised in their constitution, in writing, and their acts of protest, over 15 weeks now, are becoming a way of life for hundreds of thousands. Think about that number—all fighting for their Constitutional Rights, hundreds of thousands every day in demonstration, avoiding immediate retribution, completely aware that Beijing will, some day, want retribution but until that day comes, they will protest and fight for what’s right. These are brave people, unpersuaded by lies and misdeeds of their elected and Beijing-appointed officials: marching, protesting, every day. Makes one wonder where our backbone has gone as citizens of this, the land of the free.