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Biometric data becomes new weapon in Hong Kong protests

As protests continued on the streets of Hong Kong on Saturday, authorities were using facial recognition and biometric data to identify protesters — who were in turn using technology to track police officers. New York Times reporter Paul Mozur joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss how faces and identities have become weaponized in the clashes.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As we reported earlier, protesters were again out on the streets of Hong Kong today. Amid the familiar scenes of tear gas batons and covered faces there is a new focus on the way authorities are using technology to identify and track protesters. For more, New York Times reporter Paul Mozur joins us now via Skype from Shanghai. Paul, it looks like there's almost a cat and mouse game using facial recognition on both sides?

  • Paul Mozur:

    Yeah that's right. So basically what we've seen is as the protests have gone on at least in Hong Kongers continue to square off week after week the face has become weaponized and identity itself in a way is weaponized.

    You know, protesters will go out and police will try to capture their images on video and then go back and identify them via all the social media and online materials that are out there and then vice versa. We saw the police actually take their badges off. And so now, protesters are doing the same to the police where they're trying to go back and use social media figure out which police are doing what you know act.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Why are the police taking their identity badges off. I'm sure that the protesters are concerned that that leaves them unaccountable. But what's their fear? What's their concern?

  • Paul Mozur:

    Right so their fear partially is you know getting hit by protesters later but also there's this belief that they don't have to do it by law. And so you know as the violence has sort of ratcheted up the idea is just that they're trying to insulate escape that sort of accountability.

    One protester in particular this guy Colin Cheung that we found created a facial recognition tool to try to identify police. And he didn't actually release the product but he says because of that police actually targeted him. And what they did — it is really fascinating — is they as they grabbed him they needed access to his phone and so they tried to actually force his face in front of his phone to use the phone's facial recognition function to get it to unlock. I mean, he had actually was able to quickly disable that as he was being tackled.

    But it shows you how there's in all these different ways our biometric data has become so key to technology, it's becoming sort of weaponized in all these different sort of forms.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In a way Paul it seems that this concern that protesters have over facial recognition ties right back into the heart of why they're protesting in the first place?

  • Paul Mozur:

    Exactly. Over the past few years in China we've seen this incredible billions of dollars spent on erecting probably the most sophisticated surveillance system in the world. And that's on top of huge Internet controls that prevent information from flowing around China.

    And so the fear is that you know basically Hong Kong could start to become like China. That this sort of stern and aggressive tone that the police in Hong Kong are taking is starting to look a little bit like what happens in China where people are grabbed for their behaviors online, where people are arrested based on what they've said.

    So there's real fear there and as this new technology comes in you know the next level, the idea that you know your face and your identity itself something you can't hide on the streets, could give you away is really palpable here.

    And there was just a really stark symbol last week where in front of a Chinese government office in Hong Kong, protesters spray painted the lens of the CCTV cameras in front of the offices black and I felt that sort of stood for, that was a very meaningful moment because it showed that they're sort of rejecting that vision and that kind of idea of how technology should be used in the future and what we're seeing you know in general in China today as it's happening sort of constantly.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Paul Mozur of the New York Times joining us via Skype from Shanghai. Thanks so much.

  • Paul Mozur:


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