How Hong Kongers are Protecting Themselves from Surveillance

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After continuous attacks on Hong Kong’s autonomy through the Beijing-backed Extradition Bill and the National Security Law of 2020, Hong Kongers are finding ways to add a layer of security for themselves.

In May 2019, Beijing proposed an Extradition Bill that will allow China to put into trial crimes committed by Hong Kongers. The move was met with widespread protests that later on escalated to violent altercations with authorities. It reached its peak on November, as protesters took over Hong Kong Polytechnic University and staged a fiery siege.

Then just this year, as if a demonstration of its relentless encroachment, China’s government implemented the National Security Law that, on its surface, punishes crimes of separatism, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers. However, the National Security Law poses a critical threat to the civil liberties of Hong Kongers, as it legalizes state-sponsored surveillance on online activities, warrantless arrests, and a crackdown on dissent and criticisms. (Recommended: Hong Kong’s National Security Law and the Philippines’ Anti-Terrorism Law are Strikingly Similar)

Telecommunication service providers in Hong Kong are also legally-bound to provide data, remove content, and restrict access of users who allegedly violate the National Security Law.

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Whether or not tech companies are required to comply, Carrie Law, HK Chief Executive said that “internet service providers and other organizers” may be asked to remove information or messages because of the powers of the law.

Seemingly as an act of solidarity or a move to appease international users, messaging apps Telegram and Signal have vowed to suspend the processing of requests from HK authorities. Telegram, owned by a Russian entrepreneur, said that it will temporarily refuse data requests by Hong Kong authorities until “an international consensus has been reached.” Signal, on the other hand, cheekily tweeted: “We’d announce that we’re stopping too, but we never started over user data to HK police.” They don’t even keep user data, to begin with, they added. Telegram and Signal are the two most widely used messaging apps for protesters and organizers during the series of rallies in 2019 and early this year.

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Hong Kong users have also started wiping their digital footprint on social media sites. Pro-democracy leaders have shut down their accounts on Twitter, a popular platform for users who participated in the anti-China demonstrations. The same can be seen on Facebook and Instagram.

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As an alternative, users are flocking to other sites like LIKHG, where anti-government sentiments are welcomed. This site also allows users to remain anonymous.

Over the last few weeks, Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, Twitter, Zoom, and Microsoft have all expressed that they will also temporarily suspend cooperation with HK authorities regarding data acquisitions. TikTok, a Chinese-owned app, has already shut down its operations in Hong Kong.

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A surge on searches for virtual private networks (VPN) can also be seen. According to London-based research firm Top10VPN, a 321% spike appeared a day before the National Security Law took effect.

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VPN allows users to go online through a private network that masks their online activities. Internet protocol (IP) addresses, which is used by authorities to track individuals, are also hidden or altered by a VPN.

With the National Security Law in place, Hong Kongers fear that their freedom of expression will be muzzled. And their worries are very much valid.

Just a few hours after the details of the new law was announced, about 370 people were arrested for protesting or carrying materials that authorities deem to be in violation of the law. These materials include a flag with “Hong Kong Independence” painted on it, phone stickers that read “HKIndependence” and “Conscience” and even fliers with pro-democracy slogans.

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The measures Hong Kongers take for data privacy may seem like an overkill brought by paranoia. But if there’s anything that Hong Kongers are aware of, it is that China has a history of shutting down its citizens' access to information by blocking certain media and news sites, employing trackers to monitor internet activities, and censorship on posts critical of the Beijing government.

Hong Kongers have already lost an important battle for their autonomy through the passage of the National Security Law. Protecting their data is just one of the many steps they can push back against the tyrannical advances of China.

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