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Andrew Yang
stated on December 20, 2019 in a Democratic presidential primary debate:
"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."
true half-true
Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang speaks during a Democratic primary debate on Dec. 19, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP/Carlson) Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang speaks during a Democratic primary debate on Dec. 19, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP/Carlson)

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang speaks during a Democratic primary debate on Dec. 19, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP/Carlson)

Bill McCarthy
By Bill McCarthy December 20, 2019

Yang’s account of Hong Kong’s face-mask ban misses some details

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.

The face-mask ban is currently lifted, pending appeal

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.

Even after the bill was withdrawn, the unrest has continued, with protesters pushing for larger demands and Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s resignation.

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."

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"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.

It’s unclear how facial recognition technology is being used

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.

From what we can tell, it’s possible — but not proven — that the government is deploying the technology to monitor protests for suspects to detain. City residents are certainly suspicious.

Our ruling

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.

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Yang’s account of Hong Kong’s face-mask ban misses some details

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