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Hong Kong Protesters Avoid Facial Recognition Software to Soften Coming Crackdown

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Protestors in Hong Kong have taken to the streets in a big way, dawning hard hats and black clothes, clashing with police and pro-China plainclothes civilians, all in an attempt to create a government with something close to democratic legitimacy. The protests started in June in an attempt to block a controversial extradition bill and quickly grew to a broader protest against Chinese encroachment of Hong Kong.

When the U.K. ceded the territory back to China in 1997, they did so with the understanding that Hong Kong would pass its own laws and largely administer itself. The so called, “one country, two systems” approach. However, China has increasingly moved in on Hong Kong’s self-governance and went as far as taking away its ability to choose its own political leaders. The recent law which aimed to extradite people from Hong Kong to the mainland was a step too far.

Since then, protestors have taken to the streets to secure “what was promised to us,” as one protestor put it to Buzzfeed News. They’ve done so at great risk to their personal well-being as the mainland has cracked down hard on the protestors. A video recently went viral detailing the tactics protestors use to keep their faces hidden from the police and China’s massive dragnet surveillance and facial recognition software. Masks and bandannas are one obvious choice, but protestors have also taken to using high powered laser pointers to drown out the many cameras targeted at protestors.

In response, the police have taken to using undercover officers, used to both as agent provocateurs and to identify protestors for both facial recognition and potential prosecution. China originally attempted to censor news on the mainland, but the government recently stated they viewed the protestors as “signs of terrorism emerging,” signaling an even more draconian crackdown.

According to Buzzfeed News, the government of Hong Kong already deploys facial recognition software with Hong Kong ID Cards, its passports, and at the border entrance form the Hong Kong-Zhuhai Macau Bridge. This is only the information Buzzfeed could access, with much more behind the scenes that leaves protestors in Hong Kong worried about the government’s potential crackdown. Additionally, Hong Kong law protects the use of personal data, specifically requiring, “the minimum requirement is not to collect excessive data.” However, criminal cases allow more intrusion, and all of this combined with the Chinese government’s anti-protestor posture leaves many rightfully worried about the potential abuses to come.

In June the police said they do not deploy such technologies, but they have repeatedly denied facial recognition technology on the grounds of security and the fact their investigations are ongoing. High-resolution pictures taken by officers can be used to place a face into the system that is allegedly not being used. Additionally, phone data can be used to track people as well. All of which leaves protestors rightfully paranoid they’re being scooped up into a system bent on identifying and persecuting them.

To avoid this Sam Samuels, a surveillance specialist and former UK police officer told Buzzfeed, “if I were a protester, I would wear something to obscure my face and wouldn’t take my mobile phone – then you become anonymous.” Which increasingly is the tact taken by many protestors as the crackdown intensifies. Thousands of people are still taking to the streets and with tactics like these employed it seems as though things will only intensify before either side gives in.

While China likely hopes to quash these protests as they have previous pro-Democracy protests, this seems like an increasingly unlikely outcome. Previous protests have had clear leaders, making the crackdown easier than it might otherwise be. While these are largely anonymous, an organic outgrowth of very real opposition to Chinese policy. So again, only time will tell which side prevails, but the situation on the ground makes one thing clear, neither side will give in easily.

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