Wired first reported on a new iOS app called FireChat back in late March. It described it in the following manner:
A new iOS app called FireChat is blowing up in the App Store. But it’s not the app itself that’s causing such a stir, it’s the underlying networking technology it taps into.
The idea behind FireChat is simple. It’s a chatting app. After registering with a name — no email address or other personal identifiers required — you’re dropped into a fast-moving chatroom of “Everyone” using it in your country. The interesting aspect, however, is the “Nearby” option. Here, the app uses Apple’s Multipeer Connectivity framework, essentially a peer-to-peer feature that lets you share messages (and soon photos) with other app users nearby, regardless of whether you have an actual Wi-Fi or cellular connection.
You read that correctly. You’re able to send and receive messages even when you don’t have a data connection. FireChat accomplishes this magic by allowing each device to connect directly to others nearby using Bluetooth, peer-to-peer Wi-Fi, or traditional Wi-Fi networks. Because you’re connecting directly with other users, you don’t actually need to be connected over Wi-Fi or a cellular network.
Apple gives a good high-level overview of how the Multipeer Connectivity Framework works on its developer site. Basically, your phone goes through separate discover and session phases. In the former, the app browses for other users nearby while simultaneously broadcasting to peers that it is available to connect to. This allows you to be invited into a “session” with multiple users all daisy-chained together. Once a session invitation is accepted, you can directly communicate with those other users independent of a cellular signal or Wi-Fi access. This creates what’s known as a wireless mesh network.
In a world in which people are worried about a crackdown on internet access itself by desperate, authoritarian governments, the idea of mesh-nets is one that has interested me for quite some time. I wrote on the topic last summer in the post: Meet The Meshnet: A New Wave of Decentralized Internet Access. Now back to Wired…
Those in countries limiting its users’ access to the Internet or social media could also spread their message without fear of recourse. There is no way to tie an individual to their device other than with his or her username, which you can change at will. Messages also get deleted as soon as you close the app: anonymous, and ephemeral, Daligault says. The only hitch is, in Nearby mode, you don’t have any choice over who receives your messages — they go out to anyone within range.
Fast forward a few months and it appears that FireChat is being utilized heavily by protesters in Hong Kong. The UK Independent reports that:
You can chat “off the grid”, even if there is no internet connection or mobile phone coverage.
How is that possible?
Instead of relying on a central server, it is based on peer-to-peer “mesh networking” and connects to nearby phones using Bluetooth and WiFi, with connectivity increasing as more people
Where might this be useful?
According to FireChat, “on the beach or in the subway, at a big game or a trade show, camping in the wild or at a concert, or even traveling abroad, simply fire up the app with a friend or two and find out who else is there.”
In Hong Kong mostly, where pro-democracy protesters are using it to communicate amid fears of network shutdowns.
It’s also been used by Iraqis and Taiwanese students during their anti-Beijing Sunflower Movement.
Aside from not being reliant on the internet (which some governments restrict), it is more clandestine and less traceable.
Over 100,000 people downloaded it in 24 hours in Hong Kong over the weekend, with the CEO saying that numbers are “booming” and up to 33,000 people were using the app at the same time.
Meanwhile, have you heard of the hard drive that self-destructs when you send a text to a specific number? Yep, Gizmodo covered it here: Self-Destructing SSDs Will Nuke Themselves If You Text Them a Code Word.
The advances happening in technology are simply incredible.
Hong Kong Umbrella Protest
Hong Kong protest 2014: What’s going on?
Posted 01 Oct 2014
Occupy Central Hong Kong with Love and Peace and student protesters are continuing to gather in central Hong Kong for what’s being called the biggest challenge to China in a generation.