A new Hong Kong mandate that restaurants and other establishments require use of an app aimed at recording people’s locations and telling them if they have been near a COVID-19 patient has spurred opposition from the city’s pro-democracy voices.
The LeaveHomeSafe app scans a two-dimensional QR barcode at taxis and other locations. If a COVID-19 patient has been there, the app will alert users and provide health advice. The government required the use of the app Dec. 9 in all indoor premises including government buildings, restaurants, public facilities, and karaoke venues. Those over the age of 65, 15 years or younger, the homeless and those with disabilities are exempt.
Previously Hong Kongers could record these movements using a paper form, but the cursive characters written by opposition Hong Kongers or pro-democracy activists expressing their distrust in government were often illegible for authorities.
Hong Kongers believe the app can be a tool used by authorities to monitor citizens, according to a human rights advocate.
“Given Beijing’s use of mass surveillance in China, many Hong Kong people suspect that the app is one way for the Hong Kong and Beijing governments to normalize the use of government surveillance in Hong Kong,” Human Rights Watch senior China researcher Maya Wang told VOA by email.
An office worker in her 20s entering a Taiwanese restaurant recently was one of the Hong Kongers harboring doubts about the app. Before entering the restaurant, she said she stopped texting on her phone to use a second phone to scan the restaurant’s QR code using LeaveHomeSafe.
“It’s an act of human right and privacy violation as we can no longer choose the way we live and the app is part of the digital surveillance system,” she told VOA, referring to the government app.
Government officials sought to allay such privacy concerns last February, as health secretary Sophia Chan said the COVID-19 tracking app would not send personal data to the authorities.
“The fact is there is no issue of data privacy, because the data would be just stored in the phone of the person. There is no platform that collects those data,” Chan told reporters.
Hong Kong also has a new Health Code app for people to show they have not been exposed to COVID-19 to travel to mainland China, using LeaveHomeSafe records. The LeaveHomeSafe privacy statement says users are required to upload their visit records from the app to the health code system “only with their express consent” and “at their sole discretion.”
“The visit record, which by itself in isolation is not personal data, will be kept in users’ mobile phones for 31 days and will then be erased automatically,” the privacy statement adds.
The government announced the requirement for broader use of the LeaveHomeSafe app in November, before the omicron variant and when Hong Kong’s confirmed infection number was in single digits.
The government said in a statement then it had made the decision “amid the severe COVID-19 pandemic situation across the world” and that “it strives to foster favourable conditions for resuming cross-boundary travel with the Mainland and cross-border travel in the future.”
Wang said Hong Kongers are right to be suspicious of the government’s intentions with the tracing app.
Even though Hong Kong differs from China in significant ways, such as a privacy ordinance that protected people’s privacy for many years, she said, “these legal protections are increasingly being undermined as Beijing and Hong Kong governments do away with other protections of civil liberties, such as a free press and freedom of expression.”
The announcement of the mandate followed a clampdown on the use of the fake version of the app in the same month. The police arrested five people for using fake apps.
Two were confirmed to be arrested on suspicion of using false instruments — the same charge for using a falsified passport or fabricated visa to enter the city — that can send offenders to prison for up to 14 years and incur up to about $19,000 in penalty.
Officials have long been wary of certain residents’ opposition to the use of the app. In September, the police arrested three core members, aged 18-20, of the pro-democracy student activism group Student Politicism under the national security law.
They have been charged with conspiracy to incite subversion for “stirring hatred towards the government … including urging people not to use the LeaveHomeSafe app and to fill in fake [personal] information on the paper forms,” Steve Li Kwai-wah, superintendent of the police national security department told media in a September press conference.
Eric Lai, researcher at Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law, said the measure seeks to “repress” Hong Kongers’ rights.
“The government of Hong Kong has a track record of using COVID-preventive measures to repress the exercise of citizen's rights, such as the use of social distancing rules to criminalize citizens protesting in public sites” he told VOA by email.
Many of such shops complained about losing the freedom not to use the app and said they would offer carry-out orders that do not require its use instead.