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Hong Kong's New Surveillance Law Raises Fears of Privacy Violations


Hong Kong officials are trying to play down fears of civil rights violations after the legislature passed a law giving police the power to spy on the territory's residents.

The law allows the Hong Kong police to tap phones, intercept letters and electronic messages, and conduct secret surveillance.

The Hong Kong government says the law is needed to help collect evidence against criminals which will hold up it court, yet it also has safeguards built into protect the public from abuse. A panel of judges appointed by Chief Executive Donald Tsang will have to approve any surveillance operation. A commissioner, also appointed by Hong Kong's leader, will review any complaints of civil rights violations.

But the law allows surveillance of all citizens including lawyers and journalists, which pro-democracy activists fear will lead to violations of Hong Kong rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

There were similar concerns expressed in 2003, when a proposed anti-subversion law, seen as potentially curtailing rights, helped bring hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets to defeat the bill from being introduced.

But Joseph Cheng, a professor of politics at the City University of Hong Kong, says there was no public outcry this time around.

"This time the pro-democracy movement has failed to mobilize the public," he said. "The public does not seem to be very concerned about this piece of legislation."

After more than 50 hours of debate on the bill, all 25 pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong's Legislative Council boycotted the final vote on the law early Sunday.

"I have really tried my best," said Margaret Ng, one of those lawmakers. "Our failure really shows there is something very wrong about our present system of government."

Only half of Hong Kong's 60-member legislature is popularly elected. Lawamkers, who support Hong Kong's Beijing-backed chief executive, make up the majority.

The territory's secretary for security, Ambrose Lee, argued that the law is a good balance between effective law enforcement and privacy protection.

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