Hong Kong Protests Have Become a Technological Battleground

Hong Kong is starkly divided into two camps with the government on one side, set on limiting the rights of Hongkongers, and protesters determined to preserve their freedoms on the other. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)
Hong Kong is starkly divided into two camps with the government on one side, set on limiting the rights of Hongkongers, and protesters determined to preserve their freedoms on the other. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

Hong Kong is at present starkly divided into two camps — the local government that plans on limiting the rights of Hongkongers, and protestors who want to ensure that their independence is not hampered by the Chinese Communist Party’s interference. What makes the ongoing protests unique is that both protestors and the government are utilizing the latest technologies to identify and monitor one another.

Identifying police officers

As protests started to grow violent, police officers began taking off their identification numbers in order to keep their identities secret. This made a concerned protestor open a Telegram channel called “Dadfindboy” that published the personal information of police officers involved in violent attacks. The details also included the officers’ social media posts and family photos. The channel grew popular and gained more than 50,000 subscribers. Though the channel gave out tips like how to use a slingshot and conducted polls on the best way to handle the police with choices such as “machine gun execution” and “gas chambers,” it apparently never advocated violence against the officers.

Another protestor, Colin Cheung, developed a facial recognition tool that uses an algorithm to match photos of police officers with photos of the protest posted on the Internet. If an officer’s face was displayed on the posted photo, the algorithm would quickly discover their identities. Cheung was recently arrested and subsequently released on bail. “I don’t want them to be like secret police… If law enforcement officers don’t wear anything to show their identity, they’ll become corrupt. They’ll be able to do whatever they want… With the tool, ordinary citizens can tell who the police are,” he said to The Sydney Morning Herald.

In China, police officers do not need to identify themselves and are free from any public accountability. The fact that Hong Kong police officers are taking off their identification prior to cracking down on protestors is a clear sign that the communist model of the police state may slowly be creeping into the city.

(Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

Hong Kong police have begun taking off their identification numbers in order to keep their identities secret, but protesters have developed facial recognition tools to help identify them. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

According to a police spokesperson, over 800 incidents have been reported where the officers’ families have been harassed after their personal details were revealed.

Tracking citizens

In China, millions of CCTV cameras constantly watch people’s movements. Though Hong Kong’s privacy protocols prohibit the aggressive use of facial recognition software, many suspect that the police force is actually using such technologies to identify and track protestors identified as a threat. As such, the demonstrators are using masks, umbrellas, helmets, and goggles to cover their faces.

Some have started shining lasers into the police line to prevent the state cameras from capturing faces of the protestors. Demonstrators are also vandalizing street cameras. A few protestors have stopped using their credit cards out of fear that they might be tracked and taken down by the police. Even traveling by the public transit system is now dangerous, as the camera network captures the faces of all travelers.

(Image: RickySpanish via wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

Even traveling by the public transit system is now dangerous for protesters, as the camera network captures the faces of all travelers. (Image: RickySpanish via wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

Earlier this year, China rolled out a surveillance system that had “gait recognition technology” that allows the authorities to easily track a person using criteria like body movements and iris scans. Even if a person is wearing loose clothing, gloves, caps, scarves, or holding an umbrella, the system will still be able to identify them. Some protestors are worried that the technology might already be in use by the Hong Kong police.

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