Are Hong Kong protesters really knocking down ‘facial recognition’ towers?

Are Hong Kong protesters really knocking down ‘facial recognition’ towers?

Politics

A video showing a group of protesters in Hong Kong destroying what they believe is a “facial recognition tower” started circulating again on social media in early May. But it turns out these images are from 2019 and they actually show smart lamp posts. To be fair, some members of the Hong Kong opposition do have real concerns that the authorities are using these lamp posts to surveil the city, even though the authorities say that isn’t their purpose. 

If you only have a minute

  • A video that started circulating on Twitter on May 4, 2022 shows Hong Kong protesters attacking what they call a facial recognition tower. According to the caption on this video, it was filmed recently.

  • In reality, the video is from pro-democracy protests that took place during the summer of 2019.

  • Protesters destroyed a so-called smart lamp post, which they believe contains facial recognition software. The government, however, says that isn’t the aim of these installations.

The verification in detail

A video shared on Twitter on May 4, 2022 and retweeted nearly 37,000 times shows Hong Kong residents, according to the caption, “cutting down facial recognition towers”. A man uses an electric saw on what looks like a lamp post – a long stem with a green thing on top in the shape of a leaf. 

The pole falls to the cheers of a crowd of protesters dressed in black and carrying umbrellas. When it falls to the ground, people have a go at it – kicking it, spray painting it and pouring some kind of liquid on the components.

Certain elements in the video, like the IKEA logo in the backdrop and the orange Mega Box building, made it possible for our team to easily identify the location where it was filmed which, is, indeed Hong Kong. A similar lamp post is visible on Google Street View images from March 2022. Similar posts have been installed up and down the street. 

Video from August 2019

Since early May, this video has been shared widely on social media platforms, from Gab to Reddit to Twitter, with a caption that makes it seem like the scene took place in May 2022. 

“People in Hong Kong are rising against dictatorship of China … they are cutting down facial recognition towers from streets. Long Live the Resistance !” says one tweet, posted by a verified user with the Indian Army. 

“People in Hong Kong are cutting down the facial recognition towers. Meanwhile Twitter doesn’t want you to retweet this,” reads another Tweet.

You can find out when the video was actually filmed by carrying out a search using the key words “Hong-Kong: people destroy facial recognition towers” in English on different social media sites as well as a reverse image search using the tool Invid WeVerify (check out this link to find out how). Turns out, the video started circulating online on August 24, 2019, the day of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. One example is this tweet, which has been deleted, but you can see it archived

Moreover, this scene could not have taken place in 2022. Some of the protesters are holding umbrellas, which they use to create a wall to block the person actually felling the lamp post. Protests in 2014 were nicknamed the “umbrella revolution” and, since then, the umbrella has become a symbol of democratic resistance. But since Hong Kong adopted the so-called national security law on June 30, 2020, pro-democratic umbrellas have deserted Hong Kong streets. This law allows law enforcement to arrest anyone for “threatening national security” for vague reasons. Since June 2020, a number of pro-democracy activists have been arrested, others have been silenced while others have fled the country. 

‘Facial recognition tower’?

If you carry out a search with the tool Invid WeVerify, you’ll also see that the video has resurfaced several times since 2019.  Here it is in August 2020, for example. Here’s another example from December 2020. It always has the same caption, in English, which mentions “facial recognition towers”.

If you type these words into Google, then you’ll find articles from the time that give more information about the context. These two videos by ABC show, for example, the scene from another angle.

The knocked down structure is actually a “smart lamp post”, according to this article in the Swiss newspaper “Le Temps”. Installations like these have sparked fear amongst the opposition.  

In 2019, the Hong Kong government did install about 50 of these smart lamp posts. They want to install another 350 by 2023. These lamp posts enable them to gather information on the weather, traffic and air quality as part of a “smart city” project.

But because they are equipped with cameras and can transfer data, the Hong Kong opposition immediately expressed fears about what they might be used for. 


This is a description of a smart lamp post on a government website.
This is a description of a smart lamp post on a government website. © OGCIO HONG KONG

So the protesters in the video are attacking it because they fear that it might contain facial recognition software controlled by China.

During protests in the summer of 2019, many feared that the authorities would use surveillance and facial recognition technology to arrest activists. That’s one of the reasons they started hiding behind umbrellas. 

Facial recognition technology is everywhere in China and smart surveillance cameras are already used in some cities, like Nanjing, to surveil even the smallest movements by people as part of the “social credit” system.

After questions from the public, the Hong Kong government said in July 2019 that smart lamp posts didn’t have any facial recognition technology. They also said that some of the lamp post’s functions were not activated at this stage, like monitoring car license plates. There is information on these lamp posts that is publicly available, including the capabilities of each lamp post and their placement

Independent experts, interviewed by AFP FactCheck in September 2019, say that even if the cameras in these lamp posts were not installed for facial recognition purposes, it would be easy to modify them to do so. 

In 2022, Hong Kong continued to install these smart lamp posts, even though debates about facial recognition technology and privacy are still in full force. Currently, debate is focused on an app called “LeaveHomeSafe”, created to track those who had been in contact with someone ill with Covid-19. On May 5, 2022, the government admitted that the app did indeed contain facial recognition technology and asked the developer to look into removing it. 

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