Hong Kong police arrest five amid concerns over COVID-19 tracking app

The app regulates access to government facilities, with some calling for its use in all public spaces.

A woman scans a QR code for the government's Leave Home Safe app in Hong Kong in an Oct. 30, 2021 photo. AFP

Authorities in Hong Kong on Monday arrested five government workers for faking a COVID-19 app, amid growing concerns that the app facilitates large-scale surveillance of the city's seven million residents.

The two immigration officers, one government auditor, and two government contractors were arrested on suspicion of using a fake version of the LeaveHomeSafe COVID-19 tracing app.

Use of which became mandatory from Nov. 1 when entering government buildings, including public markets, sports facilities, and courts.

Officials stood guard on Monday at the entrance to the Ngau Chi Wan Market, which is run by the government's food and environmental hygiene department, with unmanned exits closed due to a lack of security personnel.

A group of elderly people were also seen milling around outside the main gate, with some scanning QR codes with difficulty, and being helped by market staff.

"Elderly folk don't have great memories, and they don't know how to use it," a market customer who only gave the surname Cheng told RFA. "It's a huge pain that we have to do this."

"There are now so many things I have to do now since [getting vaccinated]," she said.

A stallholder at the market, who declined to be named, said they hadn't had much business since the new rules took effect.

"Everyone's standing in line; it's a huge hassle," the stallholder said. "I have had no business [this morning]."

"Everyone is complaining about the hassle, and the fact that some elderly people don't have smartphones," he said.

At Ngau Chi Wan, some elderly customers without smartphones were being allowed to register with paper-based proof of vaccination, while other customers just wandered into the market without registering at all.

The new rules come amid growing concern that the app, which is currently mandatory in government facilities for anyone aged 12-65, could be used to track users for purposes other than tracing COVID-19 cases.

But a pro-ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) newspaper called in an editorial on Monday for the scope of the app to be extended still further.

“The government needs to push the expansion of compulsory use of LeaveHomeSafe to all places where people gather, including shopping malls and supermarkets," the Wen Wei Po newspaper said.

"At the same time, the government should severely crack down on and curb fraudulent and negative behaviors such as using false apps or buying a second mobile phone, and implement real-name registration of LeaveHomeSafe app as soon as possible," it said.

The paper also reported on a roaring trade in old smartphones in Mong Kok, quoting one customer as saying "I'm just going to put LeaveHomeSafe on it; I won't use it for anything else. I won't even put a SIM card in it."

Currently, Hong Kong's internal border with the rest of China remains closed under Beijing's "zero COVID" policy.

If Hong Kong wants the border to open again, it will need to make better use of LeaveHomeSafe, the paper warned.

Civil Service Secretary Patrick Nip told government broadcaster RTHK that the authorities will exercise flexibility around the mandatory use of the app to begin with.

He said government staff would try to "educate and encourage" people to use it properly.

Chung Kim-wah, deputy head of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI), said that since starting life as an optional tracing tool, the app is now serving to implement restrictions on people's movements.

"In the past year, we have seen the use of pandemic regulations to achieve political goals, for example to crack down on public gatherings," Chung told RFA. "It's hard to make the case that the authorities won't use LeaveHomeSafe to achieve political goals in future."

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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