Hong Kong protesters fear gov’t use of facial recognition, surveillance tech


Fear that the government will draw facial recognition technology from its arsenal of digital surveillance tools to identify protesters in Hong Kong has prompted some to take evasive action to diminish or eliminate their digital footprints.

Some protesters are deleting posts on social media as well as shutting off their phones’ location tracking features, even paying cash for public transportation fares rather than use the Octopus transit smart card than can be traced, according to a report from the CBC.

As heated clashes returned to a simmer after protesters – railing against Hong Kong’s extradition law with China - physically broke into and defaced the city’s Parliament building. But according to news reports, law enforcement is considering using facial recognition technology to identify protesters involved in the clash.

The potential for weaponizing facial recognition technology has civil rights groups and lawmakers calling for restrictions on its use.

In May San Francisco's near unanimous vote to ban facial recognition technology highlighted the rising alarm over civil rights and privacy intrusions and, according to ACLU Northern California Technology and Civil Liberties Attorney Matt Cagle, likely will help pave the way for lawmakers in other jurisdictions – as well as on the federal stage – to curb or ban its use by law enforcement and government agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has taken up facial recognition. Noting the “uniquely bipartisan recognition of the very significant threat this technology poses,” Guliani said Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., has been a particularly vocal critic of Amazon’s efforts to sell facial recognition technology to law enforcement and realizes how it could be misused against people of color.

And last week, Somerville, Mass., banned the use of facial recognition technology by city government.

“Somerville is now the first community on the East Coast to prohibit government use of face recognition surveillance technology, joining a growing nationwide movement to bring the technology under democratic control," Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement. "The city is sending a bold statement that it won’t sit by idly while the dystopian technology further outpaces our civil liberties protections and harms privacy, racial and gender justice, and freedom of speech. Massachusetts must also lead the nation by passing a statewide moratorium until there are safeguards in place. We must ensure face surveillance technology doesn’t get out ahead of our basic rights.”

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