A new Hong Kong decree requiring restaurants and other establishments to use an app designed to record the whereabouts of people and tell them if they have been around a COVID-19 patient has sparked opposition from the city’s pro-democracy voices.
LeaveHomeSafe app scans 2D QR barcode in taxis and other places. If there was a patient with COVID-19, the app will alert users and provide health advice. The government required the use of the app on December 9 in all indoor areas, including government buildings, restaurants, public facilities and karaoke rooms. Exempt persons over 65, 15 and under, homeless and disabled.
Previously, Hong Kongers could record these movements using paper form, but handwritten characters written by opposition Hong Kongers or pro-democracy activists expressing their distrust of government were often illegible to the authorities.
According to the human rights activist, Hong Kong residents believe that the app could be a tool used by the authorities to monitor citizens.
“Given that Beijing uses massive surveillance in China, many Hong Kong residents suspect that the app is one way for the governments of Hong Kong and Beijing to normalize the use of government surveillance in Hong Kong,” Maya, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Voice of America. Wang. by email.
An office worker in his 20s who recently walked into a Taiwanese restaurant was one of the Hong Kongers questioning the app. Before entering the restaurant, she said that she stopped texting on her phone in order to use a second phone to scan the restaurant’s QR code using LeaveHomeSafe.
“This is an act of violation of human rights and privacy as we can no longer choose how we live and the app is part of a digital surveillance system,” she told Voice of America, referring to the government app.
Last February, government officials tried to allay such privacy concerns, as Health Minister Sofia Chan said the COVID-19 tracking app would not send personal data to authorities.
“The point is, there is no data privacy issue, because the data will simply be stored on the person’s phone. There is no platform that would collect this data, ”Chan told reporters.
Hong Kong also has a new Health Code app that allows people to show they have not been exposed to COVID-19 to travel to mainland China using LeaveHomeSafe records. LeaveHomeSafe’s privacy statement states that users should upload their visit records from the app to the health code system “only with their explicit consent” and “at their discretion.”
“A record of the visit, which is not personally identifiable in itself, will be stored on users’ mobile phones for 31 days and then automatically deleted,” the privacy statement says.
The government announced the need for wider use of the LeaveHomeSafe app in November, before the omicron version and when the number of confirmed infections in Hong Kong was in single digits.
The government said in a statement that it made the decision “amid the grave situation of the COVID-19 pandemic around the world” and that “it is committed to creating an enabling environment for the resumption of cross-border travel with the mainland and cross-border travel into the future.”
Wang said Hong Kongers are right to be suspicious of the government’s intentions for the tracking app.
While Hong Kong is significantly different from China, she said, for example with a privacy decree that has protected people’s privacy for years, “these legal safeguards are increasingly undermined as the governments of Beijing and Hong Kong abandon other means protection of civil liberties “. such as free press and freedom of speech ”.
The mandate announcement followed a ban on the use of a fake version of the app that same month. Police have arrested five people for using fake apps.
The two are confirmed to be arrested on suspicion of using false documents – on the same charge of using a fake passport or a fabricated visa to enter the city – which could result in up to 14 years in prison and a fine of up to $ 19,000.
Officials have long been wary of some residents’ opposition to the app. In September, police arrested three key members of the pro-democracy student activist group Student Politician, between the ages of 18 and 20, under the National Security Act.
They were charged with conspiracy to incite subversive activities for “inciting hatred of the government … including urging people not to use the LeaveHomeSafe app and fill out fake [personal] information on paper, ”Steve Lee Qui-wa, superintendent of the police’s National Security Division, told the media at a September press conference.
Eric Lai, a researcher at the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University and a former spokesman for the now disbanded protest organizer Civil Front for Human Rights, said the measure was aimed at “suppressing” the rights of Hong Kongers.
“The Hong Kong government has a track record of using COVID preventive measures to suppress the exercise of citizens’ rights, such as using social distancing rules to criminalize citizens protesting in public places,” he told Voice of America via email.
Police have been accused of harassing democracy-promoting restaurants and shops by checking only such shops, local media reported. StandNewswhich is now closed.
Many of these stores have complained about the loss of freedom not to use the app and have stated that they will instead offer takeout orders that do not require use of the app.