Hong Kong police ask for billions to fund digital network linked to bodycams

Police cite the 2019 protest movement, saying they need to ‘safeguard national security.’
By Chen Zifei for RFA Mandarin
Hong Kong police ask for billions to fund digital network linked to bodycams Riot police wear helmet cameras on China’s National Day in Hong Kong in 2020.
Credit: Associated Press

Plans by the police in Hong Kong to massively upgrade the city’s digital surveillance networks using 5G networked bodycams could result in a facial recognition system similar to China’s Skynet, according to opposition politicians, sparking fears that the city will soon be subject to totalitarian monitoring.

Police recently requested an additional H.K.$5.8 billion (around U.S.$740 million) to fund the project from the Legislative Council, which has been stacked with government supporters since changes to the electoral system imposed by Beijing to prevent democratic candidates from running for office.

The 2019 protest movement was cited as a key reason behind the Digital Policing initiative that aims to digitize police communications, including video and still images collected by devices belonging to police officers and members of the public, according to a briefing document sent to the legislature for debate on April 4.

The government has already boosted police funding to the tune of billions of Hong Kong dollars in the wake of the pro-democracy protests, which the authorities say were the work of “hostile foreign forces” seeking to foment a “color revolution” in the city.

“Through construction of a new digital highway to leverage advanced technologies such as optical fiber and WiFi ... smartphones, tablet computers and Body Worn Video Cameras, coupled with the development of new mobile applications, the [police force] aims to improve connection among police officers and the speed of multimedia data transmission,” the document said.

“The [police force] must further enhance its command and communications, image processing and human resource management,” it said.

Demonstrators try to pull down a smart lamppost during a protest in Hong Kong, Aug. 24, 2019. Credit: Associated Press

Real time video

Under the new system, officers will be able to send audio, video and images in real time from wherever they are, across 5G mobile broadband, to a central digital information platform that will be searchable using artificial intelligence, in a manner similar to that of China’s Skynet.

“The platform’s system configuration is compatible with other artificial intelligence image analysis tools to facilitate more efficient and accurate targeting of suspicious persons and ... vehicles,” it said. 

“The platform ... will substantially promote ... case detection and intelligence analysis capabilities, especially for ... cases involving national and public security,” it said.

Opposition politicians said the measures would turn Hong Kong into a police state and make people fear being targeted under the current crackdown on political dissent under a draconian national security law imposed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party from July 1, 2020.

Former pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui said the request is at odds with recent claims by the government that the national security law has succeeded in restoring a sense of normalcy to the city.

“It’s often said that Hong Kong has gotten back to normal under the national security law, and that the social turmoil is now over, with no risk of more arising,” said Hui, who fled the city amid an ongoing crackdown on peaceful political opposition and public criticism of the authorities.

“Do they really need to spend so much money on investigations and national security? I don’t think the police can justify it,” he said.

“Do they really need to spend so much money on investigations and national security? I don’t think the police can justify it,” says former pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui, shown in this file photo. Credit: Associated Press

Tool for totalitarian control 

He said the new system would be a massive upgrade compared with the network of smart lamp posts installed by the authorities during the 2019 protest movement, which have surveillance cameras preinstalled.

“There are more than 30,000 police officers in Hong Kong, and each one carries a camera on their body,” Hui said. “They are monitoring people at all times.”

It’s a bit like the old days of the police political department, monitoring whether or not there is a crime – it's a tool for the totalitarian control of society,” he said, drawing parallels with China’s Skynet nationwide facial recognition and surveillance system.

“It makes me think of the monitoring and artificial intelligence used in Chinese cities, and that this is the total mainlandization of Hong Kong,” Hui said, in a reference to the ongoing blurring of boundaries between the city and the rest of China.

Umbrellas block security cameras outside a police headquarters during a demonstration in Hong Kong in 2019. Credit: Reuters

Avery Ng of the League of Social Democrats said the Legislative Council no longer challenges the government or acts as a curb on the administration.

“Billions of billions of dollars for this piece of equipment – we have no way of checking whether it is worth the money,” Ng said, adding that the government can now treat the legislature like “a cash machine with no password.”

“The national security police want billions just to upgrade their artificial intelligence and to set up a communications platform,” he said. “Is Hong Kong really that dangerous – because I’d like to know.”

“If law and order were really such a big problem in Hong Kong, wouldn’t it be better to use the money to hire more police officers and add staff to the crime-reporting hotlines?”

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Matt Reed.


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