HK youth cast wary eye at extensive China surveillance

Friday, June 14, 2019

Young Hong Kong residents protesting a proposed extradition law that would allow suspects to be sent to China for trial are seeking to safeguard their identities from potential retaliation by authorities employing mass data collection and sophisticated facial recognition technology.

Agnes, a second-year college student who declined to give her surname, said she donned a face mask as soon as she left a subway train in the downtown Admiralty district to join Wednesday’s overnight protest by pro-democracy demonstrators.

“Everybody coming out is wearing masks because you don’t know what people will do with the information,” Agnes said as friends nodded in agreement. None of them would give their names, saying they worried about how school authorities would react if Hong Kong or China’s central government asked for information about them.

To further protect their privacy, the group was buying single-trip train tickets with cash rather than using their stored-value electronic cash cards that forward information on travel and locations to a central repository.

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

Attitudes among younger Hong Kong residents such as Agnes reflect a growing sophistication among government critics since massive 2014 protests that shut down much of the downtown area in a demand for universal suffrage but ultimately fizzled without achieving their goals. Since then, the government has sentenced many of the leaders of what has become known as “Occupy Central” or the “Umbrella Movement” to prison on vague charges of causing public disturbances or inciting other people to do so.

Hong Kong police said yesterday they made 11 arrests among Wednesday’s protesters and defended their right to track down those who had been sent to hospitals for treatment of injuries.

Chinese authorities were recently discovered to be maintaining real-time data on more than 2.5 million people in western China, updated constantly with GPS coordinates of their precise whereabouts. Alongside their names, birthdates and places of employment, there were notes on the places that they had most recently visited, including mosques, hotels and restaurants.

The database appeared to have been recording people’s movements tracked by facial recognition technology, logging more than 6.7 million coordinates in a span of 24 hours. It illustrated how far China has taken facial recognition and served as a reminder of how easily technology companies can leave supposedly private records exposed to global snoopers.-AP