Digital crackdown descends on HK following mass arrests

Local | 13 Jan 2021 12:31 pm

Hong Kong police have begun sending devices seized from arrested people to China, where mainland authorities with sophisticated data-extraction technology are using the information from those devices to assist in investigations.

More than 50 of Hong Kong's most prominent pro-democracy activists have been arrested in the city’s biggest crackdown in early January, seeing over 200 digital devices being seized for alleged political crimes, as well as laptops from arrestees’ spouses who are not politically active and were not detained, the Washington Post reports.

The digital sweep showed how Hong Kong authorities are wielding their new powers under the national security law — introduced last summer — far more widely than the city’s leader promised.

The sweep also raised concerns that Hong Kong is headed for broader digital surveillance akin to that in mainland China.

A Hong Kong police officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details, said the force’s Cybersecurity and Technology Bureau is unable to crack newer Apple iPhone models locally but has found ways to compromise Android systems and information on Google Drive once the police have seized a person’s devices.

According to reports, Ray Chan Chi-chuen, a former pro-democracy lawmaker arrested at his home, said he kept receiving confirmation codes sent by Telegram to a replacement phone after police confiscated his devices. The codes are used to verify the authenticity of a user trying to log into an account.

Separately, Lam Cheuk-ting and Helena Wong Pik-wan, two former Democratic Party lawmakers, said their staffs received notifications from Google that state-sponsored hackers were trying to breach their work accounts, which are hosted on a Gmail server.

The Google alerts arrived just after their arrests, once their devices were in the hands of police.

A Google spokeswoman said she could not comment on specific incidents.

One of the people familiar with police practices said that the force remains convinced that pro-democracy protests that gripped Hong Kong in 2019 were highly planned and coordinated, though they were largely leaderless.

“Police believe they need to fully map out pro-democracy and civil society links in the city to have a clearer picture,” this person said.

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