Why are Hong Kong protesters targeting lamp posts?
Protesters tore down a smart lamp post and posted online what they found inside
On a late Saturday afternoon in Hong Kong, anti-government protesters surrounded a lamp post. While some started cutting away the base with a saw, others tied ropes to the post and began pulling it down. The lamp post toppled down with a crash to cheering and applause.
But taking it down wasn’t enough. As soon as the lamp post hit the ground, protesters began to gut it, searching for evidence of surveillance.
For the Hong Kong government, smart lamp posts are one of the most visible forays into its smart city project. Unlike regular, boring old lamp posts, these expensive devices are equipped with cameras, Bluetooth beacons and RFID technology. The US$34.75 million-worth of tech-heavy posts can collect traffic and weather data, monitor for illegal dumping of waste, and soon even improve Wi-Fi and 5G network coverage.
But some anti-government protesters see them as a sign of creeping digital surveillance from mainland China. And despite bewilderment from the government, these Hongkongers are declaring war on public cameras.
Anti-government protests have gone on for over 12 weeks now, and right from the start, protesters have been keen to protect their identities. Faces are hidden behind masks, surveillance cameras have been painted over, and some have even given up their smartphones and subway smart cards -- preferring single-use tickets for trains instead, hoping to avoid tracking.
This tension has spilled beyond the streets, affecting some of the people behind the technology inside the smart lamp posts. The same night the lamp post was toppled, one of the companies providing components reported its employees were being doxxed.
Bluetooth beacons inside the lamp posts, used for determining the position of vehicles, were tracked to Hong Kong-based subcontractor TickTack Technology. The company announced that it would cease supplying and installing smart lamp posts out of concern for the safety of company employees and their family members.
“August 24 was a dark day for Hong Kong’s innovation and technology,” Hong Kong’s technology chief Nicholas Yang said during a press conference on Monday. Yang said the driving force behind the fear was conspiracy theories and ignoring facts.
One of the groups that has been critical of the project from the start is the Surveillance Lamppost Concern Initiative. Its main concern is that smart lamp posts could be used to monitor the population and flag certain individuals, similar to what a data leak from a Beijing smart city database revealed.
The group also says there’s a lack of understanding about the project. It has been highlighting alleged discrepancies within government documents, especially those covering video surveillance equipment and devices used for determining location. The group argues that the government has not thoroughly explained and consulted the general public before rolling out the smart lamp posts.
“The infrastructure of government planning should be fully open to the public in detail,” said an anonymous representative, stressing that the group consists of citizens who don’t represent all the protesters.
Suspicion about surveillance systems is hardly new. And other cities, like Singapore, have had to defend the use of smart lamp posts.
But Hong Kong is different. While it has some autonomy, it’s also a part of China, a country investing heavily in surveillance technology like facial recognition. An example lies north of the border: Shenzhen, where cameras on streets are already catching and shaming jaywalkers.
By number of CCTV cameras per capita, eight of the world’s 10 most surveilled cities are in China, according to Comparitech. In fact, facial recognition is just one form of surveillance that’s become normal in China. One of the country's better-known projects is Skynet, dubbed “the eyes that safeguard China.”
The Hong Kong government has tried to quell fears by publishing extensive information about the program, including information about the lamps' functions and analysis results. But it hasn’t been enough to quell the suspicion.
A few days after the lamp post was taken apart, someone who claims to be an AI expert at a local university posted an unofficial analysis of its components. One of the claims that grabbed people’s attention was that video from the lamp posts could be streamed and stored for further AI analysis.
“Facial recognition can run on any video with sufficient resolution,” the anonymous researcher told us.
But the Hong Kong government’s technology office says that the cameras on the lamp posts aren’t there to watch faces, but to watch vehicles -- which means they don't have facial recognition technology. Yang, the city's secretary for innovation and technology, also claims that the raw data collected would be deleted after analysis inside the lamp post.
“As soon as that process is analyzed, the raw data is deleted immediately,” Yang said at a press conference last Friday.
The Office of the Government Chief Information Officer announced in July that certain functions would be put on hold until consultations with the public could be completed. It also said that images will not be sent to any third party for facial recognition applications.
However, the Surveillance Lamppost Concern Initiative maintains that the smart lamp post system is flawed and that the government officials can't be trusted. The unofficial research posted online says that the government could have done more, including publishing technical details, tenders and third-party surveillance modules.
That fundamental gap in trust between the government and protesters has been brewing for months, and is unlikely to wane any time soon. And unless it does, the streets of Hong Kong could see more lamp posts torn down.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer and suggested cameras were capturing video instead of images when video recording had been disabled. We regret the error.