Hong Kong’s COVID-19 crisis opens door for intrusive tracking, cementing China’s control

Hong Kong’s leaders have spent much of their political capital over the past two years eradicating the opposition rather than vaccinating their most vulnerable residents. Now, as cases spike to fresh highs, city officials are going even further to align with mainland China.

Over the weekend, Chief Secretary John Lee met with Chinese officials in neighboring Shenzhen to seek assistance with securing adequate food supplies and building a makeshift hospital for COVID-19 patients — the latest sign of how the once-autonomous financial hub continues to grow ever-more dependent on Beijing as it sticks with China’s strategy to push for zero cases rather than open to the world.

Hong Kong’s worst outbreak since the virus emerged more than two years ago is also allowing the government to increase surveillance of the population with a more-intrusive contact-tracing app — a step authorities had resisted even after using a Beijing-imposed national security law to put key democracy activists in jail.

From Feb. 24, only people with at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose will be able to enter the city’s retail outlets including supermarkets. To ensure compliance, residents must scan a code using an app on their smartphone every time they enter a mall, get their hair cut or go to church, a development that Chief Executive Carrie Lam said was akin to “killing two birds with one stone.”

“The outbreak serves as a window of opportunity to introduce whatever China means by its ‘dynamic zero strategy’ to Hong Kong,” said Kenneth Chan, associate professor specializing in Hong Kong politics at Hong Kong Baptist University. “The ‘patriots only’ leaders in government and the legislature are eager to transplant what they see as the mainland approach to show how it works in Hong Kong, though none of them were able to tell and inform citizens here what exactly they have in mind.”

Since China imposed the national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020, authorities have sought to prosecute some 100 journalists, activists and pro-democracy lawmakers, among others, that have been charged under the law.

Now the increased digital surveillance will give officials more tools to access information on the whereabouts of citizens, raising concern at a time when shouting a banned protest slogan can result in a multi-year jail sentence.

An editorial in the South China Morning Post on Saturday praised China’s health app as “highly effective” in containing outbreaks, and said Hong Kong needs to consider “all tools” to succeed in its battle. Unlike mainland China’s health code app, Hong Kong’s LeaveHomeSafe app doesn’t transmit real-time tracking data to the government — a sensitive issue in a city where pro-democracy protesters wore masks, destroyed CCTV cameras, tore down so-called smart lampposts and used umbrellas to evade detection by authorities.

Pedestrians walk past QR codes for the LeaveHomeSafe COVID-19 contact-tracing app posted outside the Central Government Offices in Hong Kong on Nov. 23. Hong Kong's border with mainland China won't fully reopen before next month's vote on the local legislature, the city's leader said, as officials from both sides work to restore economically crucial ties. | BLOOMBERG
Pedestrians walk past QR codes for the LeaveHomeSafe COVID-19 contact-tracing app posted outside the Central Government Offices in Hong Kong on Nov. 23. Hong Kong’s border with mainland China won’t fully reopen before next month’s vote on the local legislature, the city’s leader said, as officials from both sides work to restore economically crucial ties. | BLOOMBERG

Health authorities have been especially concerned about the elderly’ 54% of the population age 70 or above have been inoculated with an initial dose. Hong Kong’s daily virus cases topped 2,000 for the first time Monday, and a backlog at testing facilities has led to delays in confirming positive cases.

Under the vaccine pass mandate, venues where a positive case is found need to upload customers’ data to a government server at the Center for Health Protection, according to Francis Fong, honorary president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation. The data would then be used to track down customers who had been at that venue during a specific time frame.

“The venue operator won’t be able to read the personal data, but the government can,” said David Webb, activist investor and founder of Webb-Site.com. “It could then see, for example, that you (a journalist) arrived at a restaurant at almost the same time as X (a source).”

Ada Chung, the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data, said on Feb. 10 that adding a tracking function to the LeaveHomeSafe app wouldn’t violate data protection laws. In an emailed response, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data said that by law “all practicable steps shall be taken by the data user to ensure that any personal data held by the data is protected.” These steps include secure transmission of data as well as the physical location where the data is stored.

Requests to various government departments asking whether official entities such as the police or the national security department might also be able to access the data didn’t address the question. The Hong Kong government’s information office said only that the Center for Health and Protection would require the premise operator to upload records.

While Hong Kong passed one of the first comprehensive privacy protection laws in Asia in 1995, two years before it was handed back to China, the government in Beijing has wide access to personal data on the basis of public health and safety.

The mainland’s legal interpretations are being transferred to Hong Kong and “putting the city increasingly at odds with its proud tradition of privacy protection,” said Xiaomeng Lu, director of Eurasia Group’s geotechnology practice.

“These practices carry a strong authoritarian flavor and bear a resemblance to Beijing’s digital health apps,” she said. “The new mandate could spark a major public outcry over potential inappropriate government access to personal data given the distrust between the Hong Kong government and the public.”

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