Hong Kong goes for mass surveillance

Published 22 February 2024
- By Editorial Staff
Hong Kong Police Commissioner Raymond Siu assures that the cameras will not compromise the privacy of citizens.

2,000 new security cameras to be installed in Hong Kong by the end of 2024 may be equipped with facial recognition capabilities, according to the city’s police chief.

Authorities in the region have so far refused to answer questions about the surveillance equipment, how many cameras there are, where they are located, or whether they have automatic tracking or facial recognition capabilities.

In Hong Kong, 615 new CCTV cameras will be installed as early as March as part of police efforts to expand the surveillance apparatus to detect and prevent crime, the pro-government Hong Kong Free Press reported.

Once the first batch of cameras is installed and fine-tuned, the rest of the 2,000 units will be installed, Police Commissioner Raymond Siu announced.

According to him, 2,000 CCTV cameras are “really relatively not enough” – pointing out that there are 90,000 in Singapore and over seven million in the UK.

– We believe that there will be more than 2,000 [CCTV cameras] in the future.

Dismissing privacy concerns

However, it is not clear how many surveillance cameras are already installed in public places in the region. The police and government agencies such as the Department of Recreation and Culture and the Department of Food and Environmental Hygiene have already installed a large number of them.

When asked if the surveillance cameras will have facial recognition capabilities, Siu said he did not rule out such a possibility. He also claims that the police have not yet “decided” how long the recorded footage will be kept, and that they will compare with other countries and regions and then make a decision.

The police chief also dismisses concerns about invasion of privacy and other concerns about the risk of violating citizens’ privacy, pointing out that only public areas will be monitored and that the cameras will be handled in accordance with current legislation.

“Hoping for zero crime”

It should be noted that last year the crime rate in the region fell to what is classified as a “particularly low level” – but it is still considered necessary to install thousands of surveillance cameras. This year, however, fraud and some violent crimes are on the rise.

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– I think any law-abiding citizen would hope to see zero crime. They would not think that the police can relax because the [crime rate] has dropped.

No transparency

In 2020, when then lawmaker Charles Mok asked for details of the existing CCTV cameras in Hong Kong, how many there were and where they were located, he was told that no such statistics were kept.

Nor was he told whether they had automatic tracking or facial-recognition capabilities as disclosing information about the camera systems was considered a sensitive “security issue” that could undermine the work of law enforcement agencies.

He was also not told whether the police had tried to identify individuals by requesting access to personal data in databases managed by other authorities and by comparing facial features recorded by the surveillance cameras.

“As for the other information requested in the question, it is not appropriate for disclosure lest it compromises the Police’s technologies and capabilities in the prevention and detection of crime”, it said.