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The Reality Behind Hong Kong’s FireChat

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Being based in Hong Kong, my tech friends and I still occasionally get asked, “So what’s the deal with FireChat?” In case you missed it, FireChat, a smartphone chat app with basic mesh support, made headlines during the recent Occupy Hong Kong protests. Protesters on the ground here turned to it in late September when rumors began to circulate that the government would shut down the internet. It never did, but plenty of people, myself included, downloaded FireChat anyway. Hearing about this, many publications then used FireChat to tell a techno-utopian story about the future of mesh networking. Yet in the same stories, many publications pointed to faulty evidence of, or simply speculated about, people using its mesh features. (The sole exception being TechPresident’s Rebecca Chao, who actually found real evidence of its use.) As the hype has subsided, we at 88 Bar have decided that it’s a good time to review the facts and figures around FireChat.

 

1. FireChat was built for concerts and Burning Man

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Figure 1: Press images are from its listing in the iTunes store.

 

2. FireChat is “not meant for secure or private communications”

The full quote that FireChat gave Wired last June is: “People need to understand that this is not a tool to communicate anything that would put them in a harmful situation if it were to be discovered by somebody who’s hostile. It was not meant for secure or private communications.” (This is, of course, months before they went on the speaking circuit to market its use during the recent Hong Kong protests.)

The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab ran a full, tech analysis and concluded: “Messages sent in any of the application’s three messaging modes are sent in the clear without encryption. All messages sent and received, as well as a list of chat channels the user has joined, are stored unencrypted on the device. It is also possible for anyone (regardless of whether they have installed the app or not) to visit an IP address associated with the service in a web browser to see the most recent messages sent by users of the application.”

 

3. Lots of people in Hong Kong signed up for FireChat

Sign up figures for FireChat in Hong Kong during the protests range from 100,000 to500,000. Assuming only a small number of “troll” accounts and that not every protestor would have downloaded the app, this would imply that there were at least 100,000 to 500,000 people who downloaded it to support the protest. (Estimates say roughly 200,000 people took part in the Hong Kong protests at its peak.)

And according to FireChat’s twitter account, people are still using it: their stats show208k chat sessions on December 16, 2014.

 

4. But FireChat put Hong Kong citizens in danger during the protests

Not only are messages unencrypted, but it encourages the use of real names. Again from Global Voices: “Once installed, the app requires the user to sign up with her real name (which will be pre-filled with the name she eventually configures on her iOS or Android phone), a username and an email address.”

This is especially troubling because police have arrested at least two people in Hong Kong who posted protest-related messages online. See Quartz’s “police are using Hong Kong’s computer crime law to crack down on pro-democracy organizers.”

 

5. Protesters did use its mesh networking capability, but there’s only one report of it

Of the dozens of articles published on FireChat during Occupy Hong Kong, I only found one report that found evidence of mesh network usage. From Rebecca Chao on TechPresident:

As a volunteer, Ip was among a group of roughly 60 to 120 that monitored the supply stations. He used FireChat to recruit more volunteers. While verification is an issue in the app’s anonymous chat room settings, Ip says that given the proximity needed for off-grid use, “we could meet up instantly to confirm who I was and what volunteers we wanted and to ensure they got the right information.”

The other reports sadly only pointed to evidence of use of its internet (not mesh) chatrooms:

  • In a Wall Street Journal video cited in The Atlantic, The Verge, and TechCrunch, a Hong Kong student protester who shows off FireChat only uses its internet-enabled chatrooms, not its mesh network chatrooms.
  • When FireChat talks about its explosion 2M chatrooms created last month, they are referring to internet chatrooms. As Forbes’ Parmy Olson says, “Once a FireChat user goes off the grid like this, San Francisco-based Open Garden can’t track them anymore. That’s why they have no idea how many people are actually using its off-the-grid feature.”
  • In another Wall Street Journal video, the reporter and FireChat CEO are testing the mesh network function in the middle of the protests. It’s clear they are the only two chatting on the mesh network channel. My own experiments with my friend in the middle of the protest fared similarly.

 

6. FireChat is an IRC-like chatroom app, not a messaging app

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Figure 2: A 12-second clip of FireChat in action (as of 11am, January 12, 2015). Picture shrunk in order to conceal username + locations.

As Nathan Freitas and Oiwan Lam write in Global Voices: “FireChat is not a messaging app. FireChat is a chatroom, a platform to send insecure and public messages to people over the Internet or within your geographical vicinity.” As such it is not a replacement for Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Line or WeChat.

During the Hong Kong protests, everyone I spoke to said that Facebook and WhatsApp were by far the most commonly used communication tools. This isn’t to say FireChat wasn’t used, but it’s good to put its popularity into perspective.

 

P.S. The Hong Kong mobile network did not “collapse”

Nellie Bowles writes in Recode that “during the recent enormous pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the city’s cellular networks got so jammed they collapsed.” I have seen no reports to that effect (congestion yes, collapse no). As one protester stated in TechPresident, “I found that my LTE [4G] connection was pretty solid in most cases, even with tens of thousands of protesters around me.”

written by Jason Li of 88Bar. see more.

Callum Connects

Benedict Heng, Founder of Mr. Farmer

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Benedict Heng is bringing back the ‘kampong’ days of having the Ho Liao (good ingredients) for Ho Jiak (good tasting) food.

What’s your story?
I’m Ben from Mr. Farmer. Mr. Farmer is an online grocer dedicated to supplying the freshest produce to our customers. We believe in sustainable and ethical farming. Since a young age, I have always been an avid food lover (especially meats), developing a strong interest in all things delicious. That is why I ventured into the F&B industry, working as a junior cook for 3 years.

Midway through my career, I made a move to the finance industry to pursue monetary rewards. I dove into high-risk investments and I made lots of money from these investments. However, the good fortune did not last long and all these came crashing down when I suffered a tremendous loss. This coincided with the time that I had just started my own family and it was a huge blow to me both materially and mentally. It was this crash that made me realize that this life wasn’t for me. I went on a hiatus and eventually, it was only through the strong support from my family that I managed to tide over this tough episode.

I went back to help the family business and this was how Mr Farmer came about. My family has been in the food industry for many decades and one thing they noticed from years of experience is that sustainable farming practices are not as developed as in Europe. This is why through Mr Farmer, we hope that we can provide the best quality products to families out there who want the best ingredients for their loved ones.

What excites you most about your industry?
Delicious and wholesome food excites me. I believe food is a critical component of life and it brings people together. The opportunity to serve the community with fresh produce for a healthy life, that brings me joy.

I feel that there is still so much more we can do to improve the quality of food and bring it to the masses. One of the key components of ensuring greater quality of food is to support ethical and sustainable farming. Due to commercialization and urbanization, most farming practices these days are no longer the way they were in the old “kampong” times. Shortcuts are taken, standards are compromised, all in the name of profit. At Mr. Farmer, profit is important too but we want to focus on the concept of One Welfare – sustainable farming directly impacts our health. Our vision is to bring back the ‘kampong’ days of having the Ho Liao (good ingredients) for Ho Jiak (good tasting) food.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore. I call Singapore my home as it’s where my family and close friends are. I also travel frequently to Malaysia and APAC for work.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
It’s definitely Singapore. There is just so much this tiny city can offer! Singapore has been globally recognized for its top-notch business environment providing its residents with developed infrastructure, political stability and excellent connectivity. These factors have given us an outstanding support system for businesses to strive.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Surround yourself with people that inspire you, challenge you to rise higher, make you better and, keep them in your life.

Who inspires you?
I draw inspiration from my uncle, who is the head of both the family and business. He takes care of our family matters at home and manages hundreds of employees at work. Handling both the family and business side of things can be tricky, but he has shown me that success can be sustainable and done with a conscience. His guiding philosophy of handling business and family is simply, to have a big heart.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Even just one day of separation from the day the meat is slaughtered, makes a world of difference to its flavour.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I have come to learn that awareness is the beginning of everything. If I had my time again, I would have probably spent more time figuring out who I truly am and with that self-awareness, begun to lead my life with more purpose and meaning.

How do you unwind?
I like to spend my free time sipping white coffee at my favourite coffee place. I enjoy taking in the surrounding sights and letting my mind wander freely. It allows me to unwind and gain clarity at the same time. It also helps me organize my thoughts to prepare for the week ahead.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
It would be Bangkok as the people there are genuinely friendly and hospitable. They say people are what defines the city and I couldn’t agree more with this. I also enjoy the ‘laid back’ vibe of Bangkok. Not to mention Bangkok has all the good food and awesome shopping choices too!

Everyone in business should read this book:
“Spin selling” by Neil Reckham. It’s an amazing book that teaches you a process designed to help you successfully sell your products and services to business buyers.

Shameless plug for your business:
We at Mr. Farmer have the best tasting meats in Singapore, do a blind test and you will know why it’s Michelin chefs’ preferred choice. Not only are we very confident about the taste, we are also proud to say that all our products are chemical, hormone and antibiotic free. We also focus a lot on supporting ethical and sustainable farming practices believing in the ‘One Welfare’ concept. Do check us out if you enjoy good quality food like us!

How can people connect with you?
[email protected]

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Callum Connects

Zac Chua, Founder & CEO of The Kettle Gourmet

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Zac Chua’s popcorn business validated itself straight away and fast tracked him to the startup world. Zac now employs 11 people and shifts 500 bags of popcorn daily.

What’s your story?
It’s a crazy one. It was an accidental startup. If you think about it, no university graduate would ever dream of becoming a popcorn seller. We crashed our first tech event to validate our idea and it took off from there. I bought a logo for $7 from a designers marketplace, printed some cheap name cards, and built a 1 page landing page. Sales started pouring in and eventually, we were serving B2B clients (corporate pantries) and we have never looked back. Today we move about 500 bags daily, we have 11 employees and we are growing. Talk about a validation that worked in our favour.

What excites you most about your industry?
It’s food! Everybody loves food! In Singapore the F&B scene is brutally competitive and it spurs me on to fight and compete for market share and to prove to myself that I can do it. It keeps me going and I won’t stop until we become the market leader.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Singapore, and have traveled to most of Southeast Asia.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore! Even though Singapore has a high cost of living, the Government is actually very supportive of startups. They provide grants for us to tap into, and the technological infrastructure makes it possible for us to compete on a global scale. I believe if you can succeed in your business in Singapore, you can succeed in most of Southeast Asia.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
You only need to be right once, and the rest is history.

Who inspires you?
My father, who was a VC. In fact he was the one who gave me the best piece of advice which I shared above. Having one successful exit, he showed me that it’s okay to fail a million times – all it takes is just one time for you to win in business and in life.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The power of compounding.

  • Mary and John are the same age.
  • Mary saves $2k annually from the age of 19-25 – so she puts $14k into her portfolio
  • John saves $2k annually from the age of 26-65 – so he puts $80k into his portfolio, but 7 years after Mary.
  • If both are able to generate 10% per annum, who would have more at age 65?
  • John of course! But how much more?
  • Mary will have $944,641 whilst John will have $973,704
  • Think about it! Mary puts in only $14k but John delays for 7 years and puts in $80k.

CRAZY RIGHT!?!?

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Nothing, my mistakes taught me how to become a better me. But if I really must choose, I’d say take more time to find the right business partner.

How do you unwind?
Poker, Mahjong and Dota 2.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Vietnam! Things are cheap, people are warm and friendly, and their coffee fills up my life. I would love to retire there if possible.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The richest man in Babylon

Shameless plug for your business:
We don’t need a plug. Just try our competitors and you’ll understand why!

How can people connect with you?
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chuazongyou
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/zacchua

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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