Mobile messaging app FireChat, which does not rely on a cellular or Internet connection, has seen a surge of downloads by Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters.

More than 100,000 new accounts were created from Hong Kong on Sunday (September 28), compared to only a few hundreds on the day before, Micha Benoliel, CEO and co-founder of Open Garden, the developer of FireChat told Computerworld Hong Kong.

Benoliel added the network recorded 33,000 concurrent users from Hong Kong were connected on Sunday early evening. The spike is a response to rumors that the SAR government is considering to shut down the mobile network in Admiralty in an attempt to disrupt the protests.

Launched in March 2014, FireChat is a mobile app developed by Open Garden. It uses wireless mesh networking (WMN) to allow FireChat users to communicate with each other without a cellular network or Internet connection. Individual phones are connected to each other using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and serve as nodes in the greater network.

Benoliel added that FireChat uses a network protocol developed by Open Garden, creating an overlay network that is different from the IP network. Such network of handsets is capable of supporting up to 10,000 simultaneous users to communicate through chatrooms within a distance of 250 feet.

"It is a secure network," he said. "There is no way for a user with bad intention to access [data in] your phone through this network."

The application currently supports only iOS and Android devices, but the company has no plans to extend it to Windows phone, he added.

Unexpected surge

Despite his visit to Hong Kong coincide with the local protest, Benoliel said he was not anticipating the surge of local download.

"I am traveling from India back to the US and am stopping by Hong Kong," he said. "We have not started any marketing activity locally so far."

Benoliel added that Open Garden has a small operation in San Francisco with only 13 people with users from US, India, Brazil, Mexico, UK and Spain.

This is not the first time FireChat is being used for communication during a protest. Benoliel said the application was used during the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan earlier this year and within Iraq in June, when Whatsapp was blocked.

Not to replace Whatsapp

Hong Kong Legislative Council member Charles Mok said the surge in downloads can also be attributed to fears that communications over WhatsApp may be intercepted. He recommended downloading the latest version that uses more advanced encryption.

Asked if he would recommend that protesters use FireChat to stay connected, Mok told Computerworld Hong Kong that so far there has been no evidence of networks in Admiralty being disrupted.

"It is better only for people to download FireChat just in case," he said. "I do not recommend people use it necessarily to replace Whatsapp or Telegram, but it is up to anyone's own choice."

Different from Whatsapp, FireChat is meant for supporting the exchange of public information, "it is not meant for private chat with people nearby," Benoliel added. But similar to other social networking tools, users can choose to block communications with specific individual within the network.

Benoliel will be speaking at Internet Society's upcoming event to explain the technology and the company's story.

Government takes control of network

As to whether the SAR government has the authority to shut down telecom networks, Mok said according to section 13 of Chapter 106 Telecommunications Ordinance, the chief executive has the authority to take possession of telecom stations for up to one week in matters where an "emergency" has arisen.

"This situation has rarely occurred, and should have never applied to mobile networks. However, if the Chief Executive did enforce this, it will have a tremendous and damaging impact on Hong Kong's telecommunications industry, as well as the freedom of speech and flow of information," he said.

"I will not sit back. If this ever happens, I will apply for an injunction from the court and a judicial review," he added.