Hong Kong’s COVID-19 tracking app spurs opposition

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A new Hong Kong mandate that restaurants and other establishments require the use of an app to record people’s locations and tell them if they’ve been near a COVID-19 patient has sparked controversy. opposition from pro-democracy voices in the city.

The LeaveHomeSafe app scans a two-dimensional QR barcode in taxis and other places. If a COVID-19 patient has been there, the app will alert users and provide health advice. The government mandated the use of the app on December 9 in all indoor premises, including government buildings, restaurants, public facilities and karaoke rooms. Persons over the age of 65, 15 or younger, the homeless and persons with disabilities are exempt.

Previously, Hong Kongers could register such movements using a paper form, but cursive characters written by opposition Hong Kongers or pro-democracy activists expressing distrust of the government were often illegible to people. authorities.

Hong Kongers believe the app can be a tool used by authorities to monitor citizens, according to a human rights advocate.

“Given Beijing’s use of mass surveillance in China, many Hong Kongers suspect the app is a way for the Hong Kong and Beijing governments to normalize the use of government surveillance in Hong Kong.” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. by email.

A 20-something office worker who recently walked into a Taiwanese restaurant was among the Hong Kongers who had doubts about the app. Before entering the restaurant, she said she had stopped texting her phone to use a second phone to scan the restaurant’s QR code using LeaveHomeSafe.

“It is an act of violation of human rights and privacy, because we can no longer choose our way of life and the app is part of the digital surveillance system,” she told VOA, referring to the government application.

Government officials sought to clear up those privacy concerns last February, when Health Secretary Sophia Chan said the COVID-19 tracking app would not send personal data to authorities.

“The thing is, there is no data privacy issue because the data would just be stored in the person’s phone. There is no platform that collects that data,” said Chan to reporters.

Hong Kong also has a new Health Code app allowing people to show they have not been exposed to COVID-19 to travel to mainland China, using LeaveHomeSafe records. LeaveHomeSafe’s privacy statement says users are required to upload their visitation records from the app to the health code system “only with their express consent” and “in their sole discretion.”

FILE – A staff member holds the government’s QR code for the LeaveHomeSafe COVID-19 mobile app as people line up to get the COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine in Hong Kong, November 29, 2021.

“The recording of the visit, which in itself is not personal data, will be stored in users’ mobile phones for 31 days and will then be automatically deleted,” the privacy statement adds.

The government announced the requirement for wider use of the LeaveHomeSafe app in November, before the omicron variant and when Hong Kong’s confirmed infection number was in the single digits.

The government said in a statement that it then took the decision “in the midst of the severe COVID-19 pandemic situation across the world” and that it “is striving to create favorable conditions for the resumption of cross-border travel with the mainland and cross-border travel in the future.”

Wang said Hong Kongers were right to be suspicious of the government’s intentions with the tracing app.

Even though Hong Kong differs from China in significant ways, such as a secrecy ordinance that has protected people’s privacy for many years, she said, “those legal protections are increasingly undermined as the Beijing and Hong Kong governments are removing other civil liberties protections, such as freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

The announcement of the warrant follows a crackdown on the use of the fake version of the app in the same month. Police arrested five people for using fake apps.

Two people have been confirmed to have been arrested on suspicion of using false instruments – the same charge of using a forged passport or fabricated visa to enter the city – which can send offenders in prison for up to 14 years and face up to around $19,000 in fines.

Authorities have long been suspicious of some residents’ opposition to using the app. In September, police arrested three senior members, aged 18 to 20, of the pro-democracy student activism group Student Politicism under the National Security Act.

They were charged with conspiracy to incite subversion to “stir up hatred towards the government…including urging people not to use the LeaveHomeSafe app and filling out false [personal] information on paper forms,” Steve Li Kwai-wah, superintendent of the National Security Department of Police, told the media at a news conference in September.

Eric Lai, a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law, said the measure was intended to “suppress” the rights of Hong Kongers.

“The Hong Kong government has a track record of using COVID-preventive measures to clamp down on the exercise of citizens’ rights, such as using social distancing rules to criminalize citizens protesting at public sites” , he told VOA via email.

Police have been accused of targeting restaurants and stores that support democracy by carrying out checks only at those stores, according to local media StandNewswhich is now closed.

Many of these stores have complained that they have lost the freedom not to use the app and said they will instead offer take-out orders that do not require its use.

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