Hong Kong sees surge in VPN downloads in response to security law

VPNs and US-based messaging apps, which are banned on the mainland, are legal in Hong Kong. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong saw a spike in downloads of software designed to mask internet usage on Thursday (May 21) after Beijing signalled plans to usher in a new national security law that could tighten its grip on the city.

Virtual Private Networks, the tools that help people bypass web restrictions and disguise their digital footprints, represented seven of the 10 most-downloaded apps in Apple's Hong Kong app store, excluding games, on Thursday, according to data provider SensorTower. There weren't any on the list in the preceding days.

One popular provider, NordVPN, said it received 120 times more downloads Thursday compared with the day before.

Another, Surfshark VPN, saw a week's worth of sales in just one hour.

"We saw an incredible surge of user growth in Hong Kong directly after the official statement was made public," said Ms Naomi Hodges, Cyber security adviser at Surfshark. "It's clear that the people in Hong Kong feel their freedom is being directly threatened."

Unlike in mainland China, Hong Kong maintains an open internet and relatively loose constraints on online speech because of the city's semi-autonomous status. VPNs and US-based messaging apps like Twitter and WhatsApp, which are banned on the mainland, are legal in Hong Kong.

The national security law is expected to pass in China's Parliament before the end of its annual session next Thursday, but it would still take several procedural steps before being implemented. The law could lead to increased surveillance and censorship in Hong Kong, privacy advocates said.

"The Chinese government is taking advantage of the pandemic and stepping up its attempts to enforce control over the region," said Ray Walsh, of digital privacy advocacy group Proprivacy.com. "For Hong Kong citizens, who fear how this could impact their ability to work and communicate with the outside world online, this has led to an almost instant spike in searches for VPNs."

NordVPN's downloads began to surge around 6pm Thursday in Hong Kong, prompting efforts by the company to add new servers there and in Taiwan, said Laura Tyrell, a spokesman for the company. The effect mirrors similar responses in other countries after governments took measures to restrict online speech, such as when the UK expanded electronic surveillance in 2016 or the US repealed net neutrality rules in 2018. The last time NordVPN saw a spike in Hong Kong was in October, when anti-government protests erupted across the city over a now-frozen extradition law.

The Hong Kong protests resulted in violent demonstrations and sent the local economy into recession. It also spurred Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to invoke a colonial-era emergency law, which granted officials control and suppression of all means of communication, including the internet.

The protests simmered after the coronavirus emerged at the end of 2019 and swept across the globe, prompting protesters to stay home. Talk of restarting demonstrations began circulating recently on Telegram, another popular messaging app that's blocked in mainland China.

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