Hong Kong Face Mask Ban Could 'Haunt' Protesters and Help China Track Down Dissenters, Privacy Expert Says

The Hong Kong government has banned the use of face masks in an effort to quell the months-long protests that have plunged the semi-autonomous city into chaos.

Hong Kong's pro-Beijing Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the new measure at a Friday press conference. Lam, who has become a reviled figure among pro-democracy activists, said the measure would come into force on Saturday and apply to those at "illegal gatherings," the Associated Press reported.

Lam said the law would exempt those wearing masks for "legitimate need" and would target those who hide their identities while acting violently. "People are asking, can Hong Kong go back to normal? Is Hong Kong still a place where we can have our sweet home?" Lam asked.

"We must stop the violence," Lam said. "Now, it's all over Hong Kong." She claimed that the new measure would be "an effective deterrent to radical behavior."

But activists have warned that banning face masks is yet more evidence of Hong Kong's slide into Beijing's brand of authoritarianism. China is already at the global forefront of surveillance, and is using a wide range of technologies—including facial recognition—to better track, identify and ultimately control its citizens.

Beijing has even been exporting its expertise around the world, including to democratic nations in the West.

Thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against the proposal ahead of Lam's press conference. They chanted slogans including, "I want to wear face masks" and "Wearing mask is not a crime."

Protesters have already tried to undermine police efforts to record and identify protesters. Activists have torn down smart lampposts fitted with surveillance technology and used handheld lasers to dazzle police recording devices.

Ray Walsh, a digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy.com, told Newsweek that police are already using CCTV footage, videos from news reports and footage shared on social media to identify those attending the anti-government actions. He said that the data collected by the authorities "could potentially come back to haunt" protesters who are unable to hide their identities.

The pervasive surveillance network in mainland China stands as a warning to Hong Kong protesters. "They really do feel like China is encroaching more and more," Walsh said. Face mask bans and other assaults on personal freedom will only fortify that perception.

Chinese exports of surveillance technologies and strategies should concern everyone, not just the protesters on the front line of the fight against Beijing's authoritarian influence.

"One of the main problems with 'smart cities' and facial recognition technology is the fact that it does have the potential to be used for these nefarious purposes," Walsh explained.

"Once upon a time, what happened in China and Russia was seen as seen as 'them and us,'" Walsh said. "But more and more these technologies—because they are so useful for tracking people—we can really see it becoming almost an epidemic and spreading to the West."

The Hong Kong and Chinese governments will be hoping that the new mask law will dissuade less committed protesters from taking to the streets.

Authorities have been taken aback at the tenacity of the movement, and police—many of whom hide their faces and have even removed or hidden their identification tags—have resorted to increasingly violent methods to try and disperse the activists.

The protests began in opposition to an extradition bill that would have allowed the government to extradite fugitives to China for trial.

Though the legislation has now been withdrawn, activists are also demanding amnesty for the almost 1,600 people arrested, retraction of the term "rioters" to describe the activists, an independent inquiry into police violence, and universal suffrage for the territory.

"Five demands, not one less," has become one of the most prominent rallying cries of the movement, which activists have christened the "revolution of our times."

This article has been updated to clarify a quote from Ray Walsh.

Hong Kong, masks, China, ban, surveillance
Pro-democracy protesters march on a street as they take part in a rally in Central district on October 4, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images/Getty
Hong Kong Face Mask Ban Could 'Haunt' Protesters and Help China Track Down Dissenters, Privacy Expert Says | News