Protesters in Hong Kong have started communicating via FireChat, an app that lets people send messages without cell reception.

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Tens of thousands of protestors are gathering in Hong Kong's financial district to protest changes to election policy that would let a mainland Chinese committee vet the city's political candidates, and many use their phones to organize. There's a live feed of the protest you can watch on YouTube:

College students spearheaded the initial meetup, and this protest is appropriately tech-savvy. In addition to mainstream social networks like Facebook and Twitter, Hong Kong's activists are using iOS and Android app FireChat.

Activist Joshua Wong advised his fellow student protestors to download the app, which helped spread the word.

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FireChat's parent company Open Garden reports 100,000 new users from Hong Kong within 22 hours, and 33,000 users on the app at once. While that's nothing for big networks like Twitter, FireChat is still a small, new, underused app. This surge in use highlights its value as a tool for political organizers.

FireChat helps people create what are known as "mesh networks." These connections go between devices, using a phone's hardware to link people in a daisy chain. Right now, FireChat can connect devices up to 200 feet apart. The geographic limit means the app is really only useful in crowds... but that's exactly what the Occupy Central protests have drawn. Since the crowd is so dense, many people are able to create a large mesh network to spread updates.

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Mesh networks are an especially resilient tool because there's no easy way for a government to shut them down. They can't just block cell reception or a site address. Mesh networks are like Voldemort after he split his soul into horcruxes (only not evil). Destroying one part won't kill it unless you destroy each point of access; someone would have to turn off Bluetooth on every phone using FireChat to completely break the connection. This hard-to-break connection isn't super important for casual chats, but during tense political showdowns, it could be a lifeline.

FireChat is not encrypted, which means anyone with the app can see all the public messages (it also doesn't have a private chat function). So it's a limited political tool. But with Instagram apparently blocked in mainland China as a result of this protest, the value of having an app that can resist government-imposed shutdowns is more obvious than ever. [ TechInAsia]