Lentis/Technology in the 2019 Hong Kong Protests

The 2019 Hong Kong protests began in response to the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019, also known as the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill. Hong Kong citizens feared the bill would allow China to arrest critics of the Chinese government which would severely violate Hong Kong’s freedom of speech. Hong Kong protesters have utilized technology that promotes anonymity, especially in response to suspected Hong Kong facial recognition software and internet censorship. Anonymity is crucial to Hong Kong citizens because of distrust of their government’s altruism and China’s tendency to crackdown on dissent.


See also: w:en:Hong Kong–Mainland China conflict

Hong Kong was a British colony from 1842 to 1997 when it was returned to China, under the agreement that the Chinese government uphold the principle of "one country, two systems" until 2047. The system entails a high level of autonomy for Hong Kong. The Chinese government respected “one country, two systems” at first, but gradually started to influence Hong Kong’s government to return it under China’s control.[1]

In response to the increasing mainland China intervention to Hong Kong politics, Hong Kong residents have resisted in forms of protests, notably the 1st July protests and 2014 Hong Kong protest, or “Umbrella Movement.” The 2019 Hong Kong protest began in response to the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill, which was proposed because of a murder case in Taiwan in 2018. The bill was not transparent, so protesters feared the bill would allow the Chinese government to arrest critics in Hong Kong.[1] The protests have grown to more issues. Hong Kong protesters have made five demands:

  • Full withdrawal of extradition bill, which has been already accomplished
  • An independent inquiry into alleged police brutality
  • Retracting the classification of protesters as “rioters”
  • Amnesty for arrested people
  • Dual universal suffrage, for both the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive [2]

Facial Recognition SoftwareEdit

Use in Mainland ChinaEdit

China has been using facial recognition software to build smart cities. The facial recognition allows Chinese to use ATMs, to check in at reception, and to pay for goods. It is reported the Chinese government employs 170 million CCTV cameras. Chinese police officers are currently using smart glasses that recognize any suspect or criminal registered in the police database. People are concerned that the Chinese government abuses the biometrics to cement totalitarian rule.[3] For example, the Chinese government has used surveillance to suppress and detain Uyghurs, an ethnic minority.[4]


Hong Kong protesters believe a similar level of surveillance and facial recognition used in China is implemented in Hong Kong. Fearing being identified by the Hong Kong government, they have sawed down smart lampposts, which are believed to contain facial recognition technology, and destroyed surveillance cameras. Hong Kong protesters believe exposing their identity would put themselves at risk. [5] [6]

In response to police officers removing badge numbers and acting in plainclothes, some protesters have been posting photos of officers to Telegram channels to track and identify them. One protester, Colin Cheung, attempted to develop an app which would match officer’s faces to a database, although it was not fully implemented. Some Hong Kong police have attached reflective tape to their visors to further obscure their identity, particularly to camera flashes [7].

The dynamic of being identified in a crowd may be interpreted as a form of Panopticism. In such a case, Foucault saw the observer as having power over the observed. The counter-surveillance of officers is an effective form of activism because it flips their power-dynamic, at a much lower technological cost than FCR. When both groups become anonymous behind masks, however, interactions can become hostile due to lower inhibitions.

Hong Kong GovernmentEdit

The Hong Kong Government denies using facial recognition software with any CCTV systems. The government states that any use of FRS would be regulated by the Personal Data Privacy Ordinance (PDPO) [8]. The PDPO outlines Data Protection Principles for the handling of personal data. Notably, subjects of data must provide informed consent of collection, data collection must be limited by necessity, and the collection and use of data should be transparent. [9] The PDPO maintains exemptions for these principles, including the prevention of crime, security, and international relations. [10]

The government denies that the smart lampposts have any facial recognition capabilities [11]. Some features are disabled on the lampposts for privacy concerns: bluetooth tracking, license plate recognition, and high quality video to monitor waste-dumping. [12] One expert warns that any camera in the lampposts could be used, or re-purposed, for facial recognition and surveillance. [13] Without accountability for use, and no technical or legal limitation, protesters cannot trust that the government will not employ facial recognition.


Protesters have used masks and umbrellas to conceal their faces, and lasers to block cameras. Protesters have been taken away by the police officers did not return, and police do not hold an official record disappearances. This makes protesters afraid of exposing their identity since police can arrest them once the crowd breaks.[14] One case of police abduction is that of Causeway Bay Books, who were booksellers in Hong Kong that were detained in mainland China for publications against the government. [15]

Mask BanEdit

On October 5, 2019, Chief Executive Carrie Lam passed the Prohibition on Face Covering Regulation under the Emergency Regulations Ordinance (ERO), bypassing legislative process for reasons of "public danger". [16] The Regulation prohibits mask use in public assemblies, whether the assembly is lawful or not. It authorizes police officers to remove masks they believe are being used to prevent identification. The mask ban and arrests were perceived as an escalation to the protests, particularly with the Chinese government's support of the ban. [17] In a crowd, the arrests could have strengthened the support from more neutral protesters, and increased resistance. [18] Mask bans are common in western countries, but opponents the Hong Kong’s ban point out that these countries are democratically accountable to the people. [19] Protesters treat the mask ban with similar distrust as towards the extradition bill, and government more broadly.

The ordinance was deemed unconstitutional on November 18, 2019 by the high court of Hong Kong, on the grounds of “delegating legislative power” and disproportionately restricting freedoms. [20] The Hong Kong government stopped enforcing the ordinance in response. [21] The central government has made some indications they disagree not just with the ruling, but with Hong Kong's freedom to interpret their basic law. [22]

Internet and Social MediaEdit

Chinese CensorshipEdit

See also: w:en:Great Firewall

The People's Republic of China regulates and censors the internet with the Great Firewall. The Chinese government increased its control over the internet in the 2000s and has blocked Google search, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter and other websites. In their place, the Chinese people use government-monitored social media and websites such as Weibo, Baidu, and Tencent (also known as QQ).[23]

China may try to extend its censorship and Great Firewall to Hong Kong. For example, Telegram, a messaging app used by the Hong Kong protesters, was targeted by a distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attack. In June 2019, Telegram CEO Pavel Durov stated the IP addresses were primarily Chinese, indicating that the attack originated from the Chinese government.[24]

Hong Kong CensorshipEdit

Hong Kong’s basic law guarantees freedom of speech, and Hong Kong’s internet sees relatively little censorship. In October 2019, the Hong Kong court passed a temporary injunction against messages inciting or supporting violence on online forums. An administrator of a protestor Telegram group was arrested, although he was not detained further. [25]

Hong Kong could censor the internet using the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance (ERO), which was used to ban masks; however, Chief Executive Carrie Lam claimed this will not happen.[26] There are risks that are likely to prevent any such action. Hong Kong serves as an internet hub for Asia, so a large-scale firewall would have rippling effects. [27] Companies in Hong Kong are likely to leave should they perceive unreliable connection to the world. The Central government could coopt any censorship employed by Hong Kong, similar to their intervention into the mask ban.

Media Use by Hong Kong ProtestersEdit


LIHKG is a popular, Reddit-like forum used by Hong Kong citizens. Protesters use LIHKG to organize and strategize despite the protest having no clear leader. Unlike Chinese social media, LIHKG grants protesters anonymity so they can avoid being targeted or arrested by police.[28]


HKmap.live is an application that tracks the Hong Kong police's location in real-time along with road blockages, safe spaces, and other notable landmarks. The application is used by protesters to strategize and organize and to avoid police. The application is available online and on the Google Play Store, but was removed from the Apple Store.[29]

Involvement by Western Social Media CompaniesEdit


Apple removed HKmap.live, an application used by Hong Kong Protesters, from the Apple Store when criticized by the Chinese. The Chinese claimed that Apple, by "providing a gateway for 'toxic apps' is hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, twisting the facts of Hong Kong affairs, and against the views and principles of the Chinese people."[30] Apple claimed the app was removed because it “was being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimize individuals and property where no police are present.”[31] However, in China, Apple has removed the Taiwan flag emoji and news applications such as the New York Times and Quartz, the latter of which frequently reports on the Hong Kong Protests.[32] Therefore, Apple’s motivations for removing HKmap.live and its relationship with China are suspect.


Twitter is banned by China’s Great Firewall. In August 2019, Twitter announced it had banned 936 accounts originating from within the People’s Republic of China. Twitter claims the accounts were “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground.” The accounts were banned on the grounds of “Spam, Coordinated activity, Fake accounts, Attributed activity, Ban evasion” and not for voicing a particular political opinion.[33] Twitter is portraying itself as taking a stand against Chinese propaganda and meddling without taking a clear side on the issue.


Facebook is banned in China; however, Facebook admitted to having Chinese advertisers. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claims that Facebook is present in China through the advertising market which hopefully will lead to a “long term solution” in which Facebook is available to Chinese users.[34]


Facial recognition is a double edged-sword. While it can grant convenience to the people in smart cities, it is also used as a surveillance tool to watch and control those criticize authority, threatening individual privacy.[35] Many technologies using facial recognition were not approved in the democratic western world, since it is deemed as a threat to human rights and privacy. In China, where human rights are less of concern, facial recognition technologies have been widely implemented throughout the country in both beneficial and detrimental ways for its citizens.[36]

While there is no proof of facial recognition software being used by Hong Kong police, protesters cannot trust without accountability and transparency. Protesters have attempted to create a sense of accountability through counter-surveillance. People create accountability using cameras and social media in cases of police brutality and political protests. There is an expectation the government must remain accountable to businesses, and will not censor the internet. The future of the protests depends on the Hong Kong government's accountability.

A crucial use of technology in the 2019 Hong Kong Protests was to maintain anonymity. Anonymity matters to Hong Kong citizens because China is known to suppress and violate the rights of opposition. Thus, Hong Kong protesters dismantled lampposts potentially capable of facial recognition, wear masks during conflicts, and strategize on anonymous, online forums. Esteem for anonymity is common for resistance against powerful authority, and parties will fight over technology that either safeguards or removes anonymity.


  1. a b Hong Kong’s huge protests, explained "Vox", 2019
  2. Hong Kong protests: What are the 'five demands'? What do protesters want? "Youngpost", 2019
  3. China: facial recognition and state control "The Economist", 2019
  4. Mysterious automated calls, vanished relatives, and sinister Facebook comments: How China intimidates Uighurs who don’t even live in the country "Business Insider Malaysia", 2019
  5. Hong Kong’s police force said to have access to facial recognition AI tech – but are they using it? "South China Morning Post", 2019
  6. Hong Kong Exposes Both Sides Of China's Relentless Facial Recognition Machine "Forbes", 2019
  7. #HongKong riot police... Yuan Chen, 2019
  8. LCQ15: Privacy issues involved in use of CCTV systems with automated facial recognition function Patrick Nip, 2019
  9. Guidance on Collection and Use of Biometric Data Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data Hong Kong, 2015
  10. Personal Data Privacy Ordinance 2018
  11. A closer look at technologies applied in smart lampposts Hong Kong Press Releases, 2019
  12. Hong Kong gov’t deactivates functions on new smart lampposts amid privacy concerns “Hong Kong Free Press”, 2019
  13. How Smart are Hong Kong’s Lampposts? “AFP Fact Check”, 2019
  14. Hong Kong’s missing persons: thousands of people vanish every year but the police don’t keep official records "South China Morning Post", 2016
  15. The Case of Hong Kong’s Missing Booksellers "The New York Times Magazine", 2018
  16. Prohibition on Face Covering Regulation Hong Kong e-Legislation, 2019
  17. “Extremely Necessary”: Beijing Backs Hong Kong’s Mask Ban” “South China Morning Post”, 2019
  18. Crowd Psychology & Public Order Policing: An Overview of Scientific Theory and Evidence. Clifford Stott, 2019
  19. A brief history of government efforts to stop people from wearing masks “Quartz”, 2019
  20. IN THE MATTER of the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, Cap 241 and the Prohibition on Face Covering Regulation, Cap 241K
  21. Ban on masks must follow legal process "South China Morning Post", 2019.
  22. In Warning to Hong Kong Courts, China Shows Who is Boss "New York Times", 2019
  23. Why Facebook Is Banned in China & How to Access It "Investopedia", 2019
  24. IP addresses coming mostly from China... Pavel Durov, 2019
  25. Chinese Cyberattack Hits Telegram, App Used by Hong Kong Protesters “New York Times”, 2019
  26. Hong Kong court grants temporary injunction against inciting violence via messaging app Telegram and LIHKG forum "Hong Kong Free Press", 2019
  27. Fear of Internet Censorship Hangs Over Hong Kong Protests “IEEE Spectrum”, 2019
  28. Social media has become a battleground in Hong Kong’s protests "CNBC", 2019
  29. Apple Removes App That Helps Hong Kong Protesters Track the Police "The New York Times", 2019
  30. Is Apple helping HK rioters engage in more violence? "People's Daily Online", 2019
  31. Chinese Media’s Attacks on Apple and N.B.A. Help Inflame Nationalism "The New York Times", 2019
  32. Apple has removed the Quartz news app from the Chinese App Store at the request of the Chinese government “DiversyFund”, 2019
  33. Information operations directed at Hong Kong “Twitter”, 2019
  34. Facebook Says It Has Advertisers in China Despite Ban “Wired”, 2015
  35. Facial Recognition Technology: Here Are The Important Pros And Cons "Forbes", 2019
  36. San Francisco Bans Facial Recognition Technology "The New York Times", 2019