Hong Kong officials are playing down the presence of face biometrics capabilities in the state’s contact tracing app after they were exposed by FactWire, a Hong Kong-based investigative journalism agency.
After digging into the code underlying Hong Kong’s LeaveHomeSafe app, FactWire reported that the source code of the Android version of the app revealed that is had a face detection feature that could be used to detect the positions of a user’s mouth, nose, cheeks, eyes, and ears, as well as their head tilt.
Responding to the publication, Deputy Government Chief Information Officer Tony Wong admitted that the code exists in the app, but said that government officials had not requested it and had never activated it. Speaking by phone to Hong Kong’s “Commercial Radio” program, he also said that the government has now asked the developer of the app to remove this unneeded functionality.
The explanation is plausible. As FactWire itself noted in its original story, the LeaveHomeSafe app was built using an open-source software framework called React Native, and this framework includes a codebase containing a module that enables face detection. The developer of the contact tracing app appears to have adopted this module into LeaveHomeSafe, and while the developer appears to have renamed most of React Native’s modules and functions in a process known as “code obfuscation”, this is often done to prevent hacking and to protect an app’s copyright.
The Hong Kong government’s official position, then, is that its mobile app contractor essentially built unnecessary biometric capabilities into the contact tracing app without anyone noticing – until FactWire, of course.
Nevertheless, the revelation may add fuel to a growing political contingent that advocates against contact tracing and other mobile and digital ID systems on the basis of suspicions about government surveillance and concerns about the violation of citizens’ privacy. Some political parties and activists – typically leaning right and outside of mainstream politics – have taken up the issue in places like France, Canada, and Australia, where digital ID programs are starting to take shape; and such critics have increasingly cited concerns about ‘social credit’ systems like those seen in China, where a surveillance panopticon tied to digital ID compels individuals to engage only in behaviors approved by the state.
Hong Kong’s proximity to China, both geographically and politically, was a likely factor in provoking an immediate official response to FactWire’s story from the Hong Kong government, which is now taking pains to assure citizens that the contact tracing app was never intended to support face biometrics capabilities.