NEWS
01/08/2019 17:10 BST

Why Lasers Have Become The Weapon Of Choice Among Hong Kong Protesters

"A cyber war against Chinese artificial intelligence."

The ongoing street protests in Hong Kong are taking an increasingly surreal turn as more and more demonstrators arm themselves with lasers in a bid to confuse and distract security services.

The hand-held gadgets have been a feature of the rallies for weeks now but a clip shot on Wednesday and posted to Twitter has highlighted how common they have become.

In the footage, shot next to a row of police in full riot gear, multiple beams emanating from protesters dance around, bouncing off shields and helmets.

Freelance journalist Alessandra Bocchi, who filmed the scene, claims in the tweet that the lasers are used to “avoid facial recognition cameras”.

She adds: “A cyber war against Chinese artificial intelligence.

The demonstrators are protesting against China’s influence in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory with its own laws and legal system.

The latest wave of unrest began in the former British colony in June as a movement against now-suspended extradition legislation, and have since grown to encompass broader demands over greater democracy and government accountability.

Chris McGrath via Getty Images

The protests have been propelled by an underlying distrust for the ruling Communist Party on the mainland, where speech is tightly controlled and dissenters are routinely jailed.

The Chinese government also employs mass data collection and sophisticated facial recognition technology.

Hong Kong has installed thousands of security cameras but the data is mostly kept private, the Associated Press reports.

In mainland China, the government openly uses the technology to track down people considered politically unreliable, particularly among Muslim Uighurs, Tibetans and other minority groups.

In addition to closed-circuit television cameras spaced throughout the city, dozens of television stations and other news outlets have been broadcasting and publishing images of protesters.

Agnes, a second-year college student, told AP in June: “Everybody coming out is wearing masks because you don’t know what people will do with the information.”

PHILIP FONG via Getty Images
Protesters use laser lights as they move back to Yuen Long MTR station after a protest in Hong Kong on July 27, 2019

As well as masks, lasers provide another means of hiding identities, by either distracting security forces as they try and record information or by shining them directly at cameras.

Tyrone Siu / Reuters
Protesters shoot a laser pen beam on a policeman during a march to West Kowloon Express Rail Link Station at Hong Kong's tourism district Tsim Sha Tsui, China July 7.
SOPA Images via Getty Images

But the tactic isn’t limited to one side – journalists reporting from the ground have noted security services using lights to prevent them from documenting the force used against the protesters.

And that’s before you even take into account the weapons being deployed by police – tear gas is a regular feature of the demonstrations and tests have just begun on new water cannon.

But the protests continue, as does the crackdown – more than 20 have been charged with rioting, the most serious charge brought since mass demonstrations began in the city last month.

Standing in a heavy rain, supporters rallied outside the court, chanting: “Reclaim Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” in what has become a familiar refrain.