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New Police Video Storage Platform Will Eventually Include Facial Recognition: Hong Kong Authorities

The Hong Kong police recently applied for HK$360 million ($46 million) funding to establish a central digital image platform for storing evidence. When responding to a question from a legislator, Secretary for Security Chris Tang confirmed that the new platform would include facial recognition features in the future.

In the post-National Security Law era, the Hong Kong authorities’ stance on facial recognition systems has evolved from initially denying or being evasive and hastily clarifying when questioned to openly stating that they do not rule out adding such technology.

A Hong Kong human rights organisation is concerned that a “lawless” situation will form when the authorities increasingly introduce such technologies while lacking effective monitoring mechanisms.AI and Facial Recognition On the PlanOn May 7, during the Panel on Security to the Legislative Council, when asked whether the authorities would consider the use of AI or facial recognition capabilities on the platform, Mr. Tang said the platform would add these capabilities later.“We agree that incorporating AI programs into our Centralised Digital Image Platform will help us investigate cases. We will deal with it at the next stage,” he said. “We just need the money, the technology is already here and it can be added [to our platform] easily. I believe it’s something that has to be done in future.”

In January, Deputy Chief Secretary Warner Cheuk stated that the authorities would install 2,000 CCTV cameras across Hong Kong, citing the need to prevent crime.

Police Commissioner Raymond Siu later said that 2,000 cameras would “not be enough” and that more cameras would likely be installed in the future. He did not rule out the possibility of these CCTVs having automatic facial recognition technology and assured the public not to worry about privacy issues, as the government would operate according to existing laws.HK Police Allegedly Used Facial Recognition For YearsHowever, a Bloomberg report during the Anti-Extradition Movement in 2019 said that the Hong Kong police had already used AI technology with facial recognition capabilities for at least three years. The Australian tech company iOmniscient provided the software and trained dozens of Hong Kong police officers.Related StoriesCanada Border Agency Considering Facial Recognition Technology4/25/2024Canada Border Agency Considering Facial Recognition TechnologySpotlight on Facial Recognition Tech as NZ Shopper Wrongly Identified as Thief4/22/2024Spotlight on Facial Recognition Tech as NZ Shopper Wrongly Identified as Thief

The software could process any video, including CCTV footage, and automatically scan faces in the video to match them with police databases, according to the report.

iOmniscient refused to comment on the topic, stating that its technology also has the capability to keep identities anonymous for uses such as crowd control. Its systems are used in over 50 countries, and Hong Kong accounts for only a small part of its overall operations.

On Nov. 13 of the same year, then-Legislative Council member Charles Mok cited the report and questioned the police about the purchase of facial recognition systems.In response, the then Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, Patrick Nip, did not deny the claims in the report, stating that if law enforcement actions constituted covert surveillance under the Interception of Communications and Surveillance Ordinance, they would need to obtain authorization from a panel judge or designated officer.Lampposts Suspected of Facial Recognition CapabilitiesDuring the Anti-Extradition Movement, some citizens suspected that smart lampposts in the city had facial recognition capabilities and could become surveillance tools.

On Aug. 24, 2019, one of the themes of the Kwun Tong march was opposing the lamppost surveillance system. Protesters pulled down at least five smart lampposts and found components from Chinese surveillance equipment manufacturers.

The authorities repeatedly stated that smart lampposts did not have facial recognition capabilities. The then Secretary for Innovation and Technology, Nicholas Yang, replied at the time that “smart lampposts do not have facial recognition functions, and we will not share the captured data with third parties for facial recognition applications.”

Back then, the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer published the locations, functions, and equipment lists of the 50 installed smart lampposts.

Security cameras (R) along the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade next to Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong on September 17, 2020. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images)Security cameras (R) along the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade next to Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong on September 17, 2020. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images)‘LeaveHomeSafe’ App Suspected of Facial RecognitionIn January 2020, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department issued a statement in response to online rumors that the department was collecting personal data through network cameras equipped with facial recognition.

The department stated that the installed network cameras did not have facial recognition features, that they were primarily used to monitor illegal dumping hotspots to deter such activities, and that video footage that did not involve suspicious cases would be deleted about one month after being reviewed.

In May 2022, FactWire, a non-profit investigative news agency, found that “LeaveHomeSafe,” a COVID-19 contact tracing app launched by the Hong Kong authorities in 2020, contained a facial recognition module capable of identifying facial features and positions.The authorities stated that they were unaware of this and, after consulting the app developer, explained that the app used market-available modules that included some unnecessary features, such as facial recognition.‘Lawlessness’ in Current Hong KongHong Kong Center for Human Rights, a group founded in 2022 by human rights defenders with a background in policy and legal research, has raised concerns about the use of AI and facial recognition technologies.

“The Hong Kong authorities have been introducing AI and facial recognition technology under the guise of crime investigation. However, the methods of use and data storage are privacy-related issues. It is concerning that the public can no longer monitor how the government and law enforcement departments use the collected data,” a spokesperson for the organisation told The Epoch Times. “The situation raises suspicions that the authorities might not only be investigating crimes but also collecting data on individuals in specific areas during sensitive times and analyzing it with AI.”

The spokesperson noted that what happened in Xinjiang shows that facial recognition technology leads to pervasive surveillance and comprehensive monitoring. However, it is difficult to gauge whether Hong Kong has undergone “Xinjiang-ization.” The increasing adoption of such technologies by the Hong Kong authorities without monitoring mechanisms is alarming and has caused a chilling effect among the public.

The organization believes that the Legislative Council currently lacks opposition parties, resulting in a severe lack of mechanisms to oversee the police.

Once something is classified under “national security,” it cannot be monitored, leading to a situation of “lawlessness” that causes significant human rights violations, according to the spokesperson.

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