Is it a crime to show the location of police in an app?

That’s the debate swirling around HKmap.live, a map app that crowdsources information about the location of police and protesters in Hong Kong. Police say the app allows protesters to target police in attacks, an argument that got Apple to remove the app from the iOS App Store. But the map’s developer says there’s no evidence it’s been used for this purpose.

“We never encourage any illegal activity and will actively moderate user content,” the developer told Abacus.

That might not be enough to save the app. Legal experts say there are at least four ordinances in Hong Kong that could deem the app illegal if it were ever litigated. They include regulations against willfully obstructing the police in their duty, inciting or helping anyone in assaulting and resisting police officers, and ordinances against aiding and abetting.

Apple took down HKmap.live on October 10, saying it received warnings from the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app was being used to target and ambush police officers and commit other crimes. Apple CEO Tim Cook said the bureau provided the company with “credible information” on how the app was being used.

Apple said authorities told them that the HKmap.live app was being used to ambush officers and victimize residents in areas with no law enforcement. (Picture: Simon Song/SCMP)

The app is getting some support, though. Hong Kong lawmaker Charles Mok, who represents the IT sector, supported the app in a letter addressed to Apple that said the information on the map itself is gathered from users and public sources such as social media.

Mok pointed out that if sharing real-time information equates to encouraging criminal activity, “the same standard should also be applied to review social media apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Telegram and Instagram.”

Even Apple has gone back and forth on whether the app should be allowed. Apple originally rejected the app on the grounds that it helps people evade law enforcement. It then approved the app after a backlash to its decision. But Chinese state media weren’t happy with this decision, and outlets ran stories invoking the now-familiar complaint of “betrayal of the Chinese people's feelings.”

Finally, Apple settled on its decision that the app was illegal and should be removed.

Further confusing the matter is the fact that Google’s Waze, a map app that crowdsources information about law enforcement, is still available in Hong Kong. Waze is known for displaying the locations of traffic jams, accidents and police. An image in the iOS app store even advertises the latter feature.

The legality of Waze has never been litigated, but HKmap.live is now facing intense scrutiny. The app has been defended by those who say it can be used to avoid protests as much as police, because law enforcement is just one of many different icons on the map.

But the choice of emoji for each marker reveals the audience in mind. While protesters get a person with a helmet, police units are marked with a dog emoji. Other emoji such as flags, water drops and speech bubbles indicate police warnings, water cannons and tear gas respectively.

HKmap.live is crowdsourced, and its accuracy is reviewed by volunteers. (Picture: LIHKG)

These warnings are crowdsourced and verified with the help of Telegram, a key app for protesters. While the app helps people avoid areas with active protests, they are also useful for the leaderless protest movement. It contributes to their “be like water” tactics to evade the police, dispersing and popping up again at different locations.

HKmap.live’s creator said he hasn’t received any legal complaints, but police confirmed they’ve been trying to get the app removed because it “poses threats to law and order, as well as safety and security of Hong Kong.” The app’s anonymous developer now says he has concerns about getting arrested by the police.

Apple’s decision to remove the app has also reignited debate about the company’s willingness to fulfill requests from the Chinese government. Apple’s transparency report from June to December last year shows the company met the majority of government requests to take down apps in the 11 countries listed. China took the lead with requests to remove 626 apps from the App Store, out of which Apple removed 517. There is no data for Hong Kong, a special administrative region largely governed by its own laws.

The creator of the HKmap.live app said that he plans to continue “business as usual.” The app was resubmitted to Apple’s App Store on October 12 and is awaiting a response. Apple has not replied to email inquiries about its status.

Meanwhile, the app is still available on the Google Play Store and can be viewed in a browser on iOS or any other platform.