Tuesday, September 24, 2019

[EJinisght] Big Brother is watching: what we should do to protect ourselves

The Central Government Offices (CGOs) and the nearby Tamar Park have become a popular venue for mass protests and rallies in recent years.

I have recently sought information from the Administration Wing of the Chief Secretary for Administration’s Office and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department about the CCTV cameras used for surveillance of public places around these areas.

According to the figures provided by the authorities, there are currently 29 CCTV cameras in the areas surrounding the CGOs, all of which were manufactured by HIKVISION and are high-definition cameras generally equipped with automatic tracking or facial recognition functions.

Seventeen other CCTV cameras of the same specifications can also be found at Tamar Park and along the Central and Western District Promenade (Central Section).

The government has claimed that it hasn’t activated the automatic tracking and facial recognition functions of these cameras, and that the images captured by the cameras will normally be preserved for 30 days only.

Yet over the last three years, the authorities have provided CCTV footage for the police on nine different occasions.

As we can see, even if the automatic tracking and facial recognition functions of these devices aren’t activated or the CCTV cameras are not equipped with these functions, they are already capable of recording video footage that can allow law enforcement to analyze and identify individuals whose images are picked up by the camera.

In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Professor Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard University suggests that the “surveillance capitalism” is a mutant form of capitalism, under which tech firms are attracting users by offering them free service in order to infiltrate every aspect of their everyday life and control their access to information.

Such insidious infiltration, Zuboff says in her book, is posing a serious threat to our core values such as freedom and privacy.

Unfortunately, it has already become increasingly difficult for us to escape the surveillance of either the government or tech companies both in the real and the cyber world.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is also becoming more and more integrated with the real economy, and is already manifesting itself in many aspects of our daily life.

Facial recognition technologies have become so advanced nowadays that the “gait recognition” technology could also be further developed in the future.

With the help of these cutting-edge technologies, it will become increasingly easier to dox individuals through their social media accounts or by using surveillance devices and cameras.

Recently, some local citizens have claimed that when they passed through border checkpoints into the mainland, they were stopped and questioned by mainland authorities, who showed them their own high-definition close-up photos during interrogation.

Their unpleasant experiences with mainland customs officers have raised public concerns about whether CCTV cameras installed by the government across the city are being secretly used for mass surveillance purposes.

Given that, I believe even though the government has released the technical details of smart lampposts installed across the city, the information is still not enough to allay public concerns.

Even more worrisome is that Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah has recently said that in response to radical protests in recent months, relevant legal research is being undertaken for the purpose of passing an anti-mask law.

That begs the question: is the formulation of this law intended to subject Hong Kong citizens to an advanced, AI-supported mass surveillance system?

In order to defend the human rights and personal privacy of the Hong Kong people, we have to say “no” to this proposed legislation as everyone in the city is entitled to “freedom from fear”.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 20, 2019

Translation by Alan Lee



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