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Entrepreneur Andrew Yang slammed the reaction to ongoing protests in Hong Kong, accusing the government of using new technologies to punish pro-democracy activists for speaking out.
"They banned face masks in Hong Kong," Yang said during the presidential debate in Los Angeles. "Why? Because they have AI technology that now is using facial recognition to identify protesters if they so much as do anything on the street, so they can follow up with them and detain them later."
We wondered if Yang’s description of Hong Kong’s artificial intelligence capabilities was accurate, so we decided to dig into the matter.
We found that the ban on face masks has been stalled in the courts, and the facial recognition technology has not necessarily been used in the way Yang suggested.
Hong Kong is a part of China but governs itself independently. That "one country, two systems" setup has been in place since the United Kingdom returned the former colony to China in 1997.
In June, pro-democracy protesters took to the streets to rebel against a Chinese bill that would have allowed for extradition from Hong Kong to China for certain serious crimes.
In October, Lam invoked emergency powers to ban protesters from wearing face masks, making the act punishable by fines and jail time. A court in Hong Kong ruled the ban unconstitutional the next month before allowing it to be temporarily reinstated days later.
Then, in December, the South China Morning Post reported that a court lifted the ban again, pending an appeal that is set to take place in January.
So currently, there’s no ban in place, but the final decision has not been made. Acting chief judge of the High Court Jeremy Poon Shiu-chor wrote that his ruling to lift the ban for the time being "in no way determined the appeals one way or the other."
"If one is to continue to wear masks ... in the meantime, he has to face the inherent risk of having acted contrary to the law should the (government) later succeed on appeal," he said.
S.Y. Lee, national press secretary for the Yang campaign, told us that Yang’s statement is "still correct" in light of the recent court decision to lift the ban. "The Chinese government moved to ban and still wants to ban face masks, regardless of the court's decision," he said.
Lee cited articles in the New York Times and Bloomberg to back up the second part of Yang’s claim — that Hong Kong is using facial recognition technology to identify unmasked protesters they can later detain. The New York Times report detailed China’s surveillance powers.
The Bloomberg story got more to Yang’s point. That report, which relied in part on anonymous sources, said that law enforcement in Hong Kong has access to artificial intelligence software that can scan video footage and match faces and license plates to police databases.
But the report also said it’s "unclear" if the technology has been steered toward targeting Hong Kong’s protesters. The software can be useful for other purposes, such as finding lost children, and Hong Kong’s leaders have not publicly said they are using it on protesters, denying in one case a request from Buzzfeed for information related to its use of the technology.
Yang said, "They banned face masks in Hong Kong. Why? Because they have AI technology that now is using facial recognition to identify protesters if they so much as do anything on the street, so they can follow up with them and detain them later."
Yang’s claim is on the right track; the government in Hong Kong has tried to ban the use of face masks, and it is reportedly capable of using facial recognition technology against its protesters.
But the ban has been lifted for the time being, and it has not been definitively reported that the city’s law enforcement authorities are using facial recognition to find and hold suspects.
Overall, the statement is partially accurate but leaves out important context. We rate it Half True.
PBS Newshour on YouTube, "WATCH LIVE: The PBS NewsHour/POLITICO Democratic Debate," Dec. 19, 2019
The New York Times, "A Surveillance Net Blankets China’s Cities, Giving Police Vast Powers," Dec. 17, 2019
South China Morning Post, "Hong Kong mask ban lifted: court refuses government request to suspend earlier ruling that it was unconstitutional," Dec. 10, 2019
The New York Times, "Hong Kong Court Reinstates Mask Ban Before Citywide Election," Nov. 22, 2019
Reuters, "Hong Kong court rules ban on face masks unconstitutional," Nov. 18, 2019
Reuters, "Hong Kong extradition bill officially killed, but more unrest likely," Oct. 23, 2019
Bloomberg, "Hong Kong Police Already Have AI Tech That Can Recognize Faces," Oct. 22, 2019
The New York Times, "Hong Kong Banned Masks at Protests. Masked Crowds Protested the Ban," Oct. 4, 2019
Fortune, "Hong Kong’s Mask Ban Pits Anonymity Against the Surveillance State," Oct. 4, 2019
CNN, "Why Hong Kong is protesting: Their five demands listed," Aug. 30, 2019
National Geographic, "How Hong Kong’s complex history explains its current crisis with China," Aug. 7, 2019
The New York Times, "In Hong Kong Protests, Faces Become Weapons," July 26, 2019
Email interview with S.Y. Lee, national press secretary for Andrew Yang, Dec. 19, 2019
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