CCTV facial recognition and the Hong Kong protests

August 24 marked another long day of clashes in Hong Kong between police and protestors.

The nearly three-month long protests generally choose their location based on certain problematic aspects of Hong Kong’s relationship with China. 

That day, the focus opposed police digital surveillance tactics, specifically the city’s installation of ‘smart lampposts’; street lights that come equipped with cameras and sensors. Hong Kong authorities insist the lampposts are only used to monitor weather, traffic, and air quality. 

Police and protestors on Aug 24

After riot police forcibly dispersed an initial gathering of tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens, groups of protestors broke off and regrouped in different neighborhoods. Several smart lamps were pulled down, dismantled, and occasionally kicked. Police fired projectiles, released tear gas, and wielded batons and riot gear while charging lines of protestors.

Facial recognition already common

Various facial recognition technologies and devices are already common across Hong Kong. They unlock mobile devices, confirm identities at ATMS, and identify individuals in photos based on their social media profile.

Suspicions of increased mainland monitoring

The renewed concern of protestors directly relates to the catalyst for the entire protest movement: the extradition bill that sought to allow Hong Kong citizens to be tried by the mainland Chinese judiciary system.

The general public simply does not trust the new cameras, many of them developed and sold by Chinese companies, to innocuously report weather and traffic data. 

China obviously wants the ability to extradite Hong Kong citizens for crimes committed outside of the mainland. A video surveillance network in which Chinese authorities can monitor individual Hong Kong citizens is a clear path towards building cases against political targets that could facilitate a case for extradition.