25 May 2019
New smart ID cards being planned by Hong Kong have given rise to privacy concerns, with some observers also fearing that the cards will enable the police to keep political activists under tighter watch. Photo: HKEJ
New smart ID cards being planned by Hong Kong have given rise to privacy concerns, with some observers also fearing that the cards will enable the police to keep political activists under tighter watch. Photo: HKEJ

New HK identity card: smarter, more dangerous

For selfie addicts, a government plan to replace all Hong Kong smart identity cards is probably a most welcome decision as it offers them a chance to have a fresh, hopefully better, image of themselves on a personal document that they use quite often.

After all, according to a policy paper submitted to the Legislative Council on Tuesday, the new smart ID card will have an expanded storage capacity for a higher-resolution photo. 

Aside from being more durable and harder to counterfeit, the ID cards will also support wireless technology. And that’s what’s worrying.

Given the government’s insistence on implementing the national security provision of the Basic Law, the new smart ID card may be used to further tighten social control, infringe on our freedoms, limit our privacy and stifle dissent.

Under the plan, the government wants to replace all Hong Kong residents’ identity cards in phases between 2018 and 2022.

The Security Bureau said the existing smart ID cards, which have been issued since 2003, are gradually reaching their 10-year lifespan and becoming more susceptible to damage and malfunction.

And as technology continues to advance, forgery of ID cards may become more prevalent.

In its proposal, the government apparently wants to boost the function of the Hong Kong ID by turning it into a multi-purpose card for people to enjoy public services and engage in various transactions. Right now, for example, the ID card can be used to borrow books in public libraries.

The new card will employ a built-in radio frequency identification (RFID) transmission technology to improve security and speed up data retrieval.

The next-generation chip in the card will also support not only higher photo resolution but also better fingerprints to enable more accurate computer recognition. It will also enable better face detection and biometric identification.

As such, a new smart ID card can help the government collect more personal data for its records, while insisting on a policy of protecting individual privacy.

With the deployment of RFID technology, the government can easily track down, say, pan-democrats, political activists or anyone else it perceives as a threat to national security. 

Through the new HKID card, the government can monitor the whereabouts of people, their flow into and out of the border. For the government, the cards can serve as its eyes and ears hidden inside our bags and wallets.

The enormous capability of the Hong Kong ID card as an instrument of social control has been clearly demonstrated in the 79-day Occupy protests. During the final day of the campaign, police officers did not arrest many of the pro-democracy activists in the protest sites but simply took down their HKID numbers. Armed with those HKID numbers, police can easily find out their address and take action to arrest them if the circumstance warrants. 

An upgraded HKID card will vastly improve the ability of authorities to track down pro-democracy activists and take action on them.

The government is already using an earlier version of the chip technology in the current HKID card. Each card is embedded with an integrated circuit chip, which can record, store, process and transmit data to and from designated devices. It has compartments that segregate immigration-related data from value-added non-immigration applications.

Now, since the current HKID card can already perform smart functions that will enable holders to avail themselves of public services and immigration officers to check identities and other relevant information, the government has no need to upgrade the technology in the replacement cards and spend an initial HK$2.9 billion.

All it has to do is ask the suppliers to improve the security features of the replacement cards to prevent forgeries and improve their durability. There is no need to shift to RFID technology which will only draw suspicions from the public that the government intends to use the smart card as a monotoring device that would abridge their freedoms and intrude into their privacy.

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EJ Insight writer

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