Will smart lampposts compromise our privacy? An expert view

September 13, 2019 13:01
Panoramic cameras are equipped on a smart lamppost installed in Hong Kong, which will be used to monitor road traffic condition, as part of the government's pilot scheme to enhance real-time city data collection. Photo: Bloomberg

Technologies such as face recognition and radio frequency identification (RFID) have sparked privacy controversies around the globe, with people fretting about systems that can be used for surveillance. In Hong Kong, a government initiative for “smart lampposts” has prompted questions, with the issue becoming especially sensitive in the wake of the anti-government protests in the city.

To discuss the challenges involved in implementing new technologies and learn how people can protect their sensitive personal information in the era of Big Data, the Hong Kong Economic Journal recent sat down with Wilson Wong Ka-wai, CEO of Hong Kong Internet Registration Corporation (HKIRC), a not-for-profit entity that administers registration of internet domain names under '.hk'. 

Excerpts from the conversation:

Q: On the data privacy issue that has arisen in recent years, can you outline the problem briefly?

A: We find that there is lack of data privacy awareness on Internet-of-Things (IoT) products among businesses and the general public. Take network camera as an example. As its built-in memory storage space is limited, images and videos captured by the camera can be uploaded to the cloud storage, though the camera manufacturer may not intentionally invade people’s privacy. Regular users may not notice that their privacy is being disclosed if they have not read the product instruction manuals carefully.

Once the IoT-enabled devices are connected to the network, they can be attacked if there is no adequate security measure. For smart TVs with cameras, users must ensure they are securely encrypted and protected. As for smartphones, users often ignore the notifications from the operating system of the smartphones calling for system updates.

Q: Recently, privacy issue surrounding the Hong Kong government’s “smart lampposts” program has become a hot topic in the city, as many people fear the new technology could be used for surveillance purposes. What’s your take on that?

A: The public is worried that if there are tens of thousands of smart lampposts installed in multiple districts across the city in the future, people participating in protests and rallies will be photographed and the information on their personal identities and whereabouts will be sent to the government. Also, on the RFID sensing feature of the smart lampposts, people are worried if it will be used to read and record the data of passersby's new Hong Kong ID cards, which will be built with RFID transmission technology.

From what I know, the government has responded to the public concern, as it explained the video recording function of the smart lampposts is used by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) to monitor the dumping of wastes on streets and roads, and by the Transport Department to monitor the road traffic conditions. Also, the government has announced that... video recording for road traffic will be restrained in a lower resolution of 320 x 240 pixels. Under low-pixel shooting, I believe it is difficult for the smart lamppost to capture vehicles’ license plates, not to mention people’s faces.

Some people have wondered whether the low-res images captured can be transformed into quality high resolution in order to recognize human faces. First, I don't believe in the feasibility [of such action]. Second, if it is feasible, the institution that owns the technology should have already revealed that information to the public.

The RFID technology built into the smart lamppost can be used by the government to support barrier-free facilities, such as smart walking sticks for the blind, to facilitate location seeking. While some people are worried that this technology can read and record the data from the new smart Hong Kong ID cards, the government has responded that the RFID technology built into the smart lampposts will only be capable of sending signals in one direction and that it cannot read data.

In fact, it is actually difficult to read the card data by RFID transmission technology at a long distance. For example, Hong Kong’s ubiquitous payment card, the Octopus card, which also supports RFID technology, cannot be read when it is more than one foot away from the card reader.

The smart lamppost is the basis for the development of the “Smart City” technology initiative. Many countries around the world have already set up smart lampposts and similar types of applications. If we are still struggling with whether the smart lampposts should be equipped with cameras, or they should be used only for lighting purposes, I believe the development of Smart City technology in Hong Kong will be stagnant.

Q: What do you think the government should do to ease the public concerns over the smart lampposts? Some say authorities should draft data privacy regulations in line with the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the European Union’s regulation on data protection and privacy adopted in 2016. Do you think it is feasible?

A: I believe the government has been quite rigorous in the encryption and protection of data transfer of the smart lampposts. Personally, I think it is mainly about the public's trust in the government. The industry has put forward relevant proposals to enhance the transparency of the data transfer process. The government could, for instance, upload the information collected by the smart lampposts to the government's website, allowing the public to know about the usage of the data.

As for the GDPR, the maximum fine for violating the relevant regulations is equivalent to 20 million euros, or 4 percent of a company's annual income, whichever is higher. Whether Hong Kong should draft data privacy regulations like that, the matter should be left to the government. But instead of enforcing a severe punishment, I think it is more important to raise the data privacy awareness of the public, so that people will pay more attention to the use of their personal information.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 6

Translation by Ben Ng

[Chinese version 中文版]

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