Last Tuesday, Secretary for Innovation and Technology Alfred Sit Wing-hang asked the Mass Transit Railway to “actively consider” adopting the official Leave Home Safe app. The move seems innocuous but is symptomatic of the problems with other government initiatives. It is devoid of both public support and details on implementation.
Launched in mid-November, the digital tool will notify users who were at the same venue that a confirmed COVID-19 patient has visited about the same time. The contact-tracking program has been downloaded 3.11 million times. However, IT professionals are skeptical that the tally has been inflated. Leave Home Safe has topped the charts of health care apps in remote nations, ranging from Antigua and Barbuda to Cabo Verde, whose citizens have obviously nothing to do with its application in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, repeated official clarifications have failed to assure the public that the app will not infringe privacy. Similar arrangements are in place in countries like Canada, Germany, New Zealand and the UK. Unlike these governments, the Hong Kong authorities have refused to reveal the source code of Leave Home Safe for public inspection.
Under the Prevention and Control of Disease (Disclosure of Information) Regulation, it is mandatory for taxi and eatery owners to display the relevant QR code for patrons to scan. Yet, many people prefer to fill in their names and contact numbers on paper. Some have even taken the formality as an invitation to poke fun at politicians whom they despise.
According to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, among the 8,231 residents polled last December, only 35% were in favour of making Leave Home Safe compulsory for entry into designated premises. At odds with public sentiments, the secretary appears eager to extend the legal requirement to cover the biggest transport operation in town. The MTR responded with measured caution.
Last January, the MTR carried 3,244,000 passengers on an average weekday. If one takes 20 seconds to complete the scanning without a hitch, the system would have to manage over 18,000 extra passenger-hours in its stations on a daily basis. This is on the assumption that all passengers are cooperative and do not opt for filling out contact forms in black and white. Even minimal inspection for compliance is doomed to end up in unacceptable disruptions to the passenger flow in rush hours.
Young advocates of democracy are not exactly fans of the rail system. Some of them blame the company for its part in the police crackdown on the mass anti-government protests. In particular, the company’s sluggish response to the indiscriminate mob attack on passengers in the Yuen Long station on the evening of July 21, 2019, has left an indelible traumatic mark in the collective memory. The company subsequently apologized and admitted that their frontliners were not equipped to deal with such violent assaults.
At the heat of the movement, rail premises and facilities had fallen targets of vandalism. Individual protesters had gatecrashed and blocked train doors to interrupt service. It took the company months to resume normality. It is conceivable that some activists would be tempted to use the added code scanning requirement to revive their wildcat protests against the establishment.
The secretary’s call is thus bordered on political naivety. Sit is a successful technocrat. He joined the administration as an engineer in 1984 and made all the way up to Director of Electrical and Mechanical Services. In the reshuffle in 2020, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor handpicked him for the innovation and technology portfolio.
Apparently, Sit has consulted neither Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan nor Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu, before he put forward his idea for MTR on a breakfast talk-back show.
In response to press enquiries, the MTR noted that the QR code had already been displayed at appropriate locations in its stations and shopping areas after taking into account factors, such as visitors’ durations of stay at fixed locations. As regards rail facilities, it would continue to liaise with the government to explore prudently the feasibility of adopting the scanning practice in the mass rapid rail system.
This is a diplomatic roundabout way to tell the Secretary to get lost. The pro-democracy movement may have been squashed but Hong Kong has remained a political powder keg. Sit should have known better than hurling an open advice at the utility operator without a clue on enforcement and the security risks it entails.
(Andy Ho is a public affairs consultant. A former political editor of the South China Morning Post, he served as Information Coordinator at the Chief Executive’s Office of the HKSAR Government from 2006 to 2012.)
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