Skip to Content

Hong Kong protesters get pro bono cybersecurity help from Silicon Valley

hong kong harbor
hong kong harborPhoto: cloud.shepard/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

American companies have for the most part spent the last week conspicuously putting their tails beneath their legs when faced with China’s economic might and the country’s willingness to censor critical opinions.

On Wednesday, an emphatic counterpoint arrived in Hong Kong: 500 free hardware security keys from Yubico, a Silicon Valley–based company, were delivered to pro-democracy journalists and protesters, according to the pro-democracy Hong Kong site Stand News. Cybersecurity experts consider these tools to be among the most effective defenses against hackers targeting online accounts.

The purpose: “Yes, keys were shipped,” Yubico spokesperson Ashton Tupper says. “Yubico has a long-standing mission to ensure that people at high risk are protected online. The company works with many nonprofit organizations dedicated to an open internet and free speech.”

Yubico has a track record of working with journalists to protect their cybersecurity. That kind of relationship is increasingly common. Tech companies like Google and FireEye have their own outreach programs to help protect journalists and others; I’ve received several keys as part of this work. 

The power of security keys:  A hardware security key is the strongest form of two-factor authentication an online account can have: unlike other forms of two-factor authentication, a key cannot be imitated or captured by phishing.

Google account takeover
How two-factor authentication prevents account takeover hacking attempts
Graphic: Google

The best way to understand how powerful and important security keys are is to look at the numbers. Google, which sells its own hardware key, published research this year showing that security keys stopping 100% of account takeover attempts. In 2018, Google said that since employees began using security keys the company had not suffered a single account takeover.

The threat: China is one of the world’s most powerful actors in cyberspace. Hong Kong is a sensitive hot spot because of a pro-democracy movement resisting Beijing’s attempts to exert greater control over the semi-autonomous region.

Journalists and protesters in Hong Kong are at risk from a country that’s proved itself more than willing to use cyber tools to go after any group it perceives as an adversary. Most overtly, China is engaging in an information campaign both domestically and around the world in order to push Beijing’s narrative about recent events.

The risk, however, does not end there. As previous campaigns around the world have shown, most famously the Russian operation during the American 2016 election, hacking can be used in concert with information campaigns to accomplish geopolitical goals.

Deep Dive


Erik Prince wants to sell you a “secure” smartphone that’s too good to be true

MIT Technology Review obtained Prince’s investor presentation for the “RedPill Phone,” which promises more than it could possibly deliver.

Corruption is sending shock waves through China’s chipmaking industry

The arrests of several top semiconductor fund executives could force the government to rethink how it invests in the sector.

Inside the software that will become the next battle front in US-China chip war

The US has moved to restrict export of EDA software. What is it, and how will the move affect China?

Hackers linked to China have been targeting human rights groups for years

In a new report shared exclusively with MIT Technology Review, researchers expose a cyber-espionage campaign on “a tight budget” that proves simple can still be effective.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.