Hong Kong officials are downplaying the presence of facial biometrics capabilities in the state’s contact tracing app after it was revealed by FactWire, a Hong Kong-based investigative journalism agency.
After digging into the code behind Hong Kong’s LeaveHomeSafe app, FactWire reported that the source code for the Android version of the app revealed it had a face detection feature that could be used to detect the positions of a user’s mouth, nose, cheeks, eyes. , and ears, as well as the inclination of their heads.
In response to the post, Deputy Government Information Director Tony Wong admitted the code exists in the app, but said government officials did not ask for it and never activated it. . Speaking to Hong Kong’s “Commercial Radio” program by phone, he also said the government has now asked the app’s developer to remove the unnecessary feature.
The explanation is plausible. As FactWire itself noted in its original story, the LeaveHomeSafe app was built using an open-source software framework called React Native, and that framework includes a codebase that contains a module that enables the face detection. The developer of the contact tracing app appears to have adopted this module in LeaveHomeSafe, and while the developer appears to have renamed most React Native modules and functions in a process known as “code obfuscation,” this is often done to prevent piracy and to protect an application’s copyright.
So the official position of the Hong Kong government is that its mobile app provider has basically baked unnecessary biometric capabilities into the contact-tracing app without anyone noticing – until FactWire, of course.
Still, the revelation could fuel a growing political contingent that is campaigning against contact tracing and other mobile and digital ID systems based on suspicions about government surveillance and concerns about breaching citizens’ privacy. Some political parties and activists – usually on the right and outside of mainstream politics – have taken up the issue in places like France, Canada and Australia, where digital ID programs are beginning to take shape; and these critics have increasingly cited concerns about “social credit” systems like those seen in China, where a surveillance panopticon tied to digital ID compels individuals to engage only in government-approved behaviors. State.
Hong Kong’s proximity to China, both geographically and politically, was likely a factor that prompted an immediate official response to the FactWire story from the Hong Kong government, which is now working to ensure citizens that the contact tracing app was never intended to support facial biometrics. capacities.
Sources: FactWire, Coconuts Hong Kong, The Standard