The Hong Kong government has reminded people who are called up in an identity card replacement scheme to go to the Immigration Department to take high-definition mugshots and leave their fingerprints as well as other biometric data for their new ID cards, touted as smarter and more secure and durable and the key to a digital profile for each resident to access public and commercial e-services.

But some fear the new cards to be issued to 7.48 million Hongkongers may become permanent trackers for the authorities to snoop on people, especially pro-democracy activists and dissidents.

The concern radiates from the radio-frequency identification (RFID) moduel – which uses electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track tags attached to objects – embedded in the new ID cards: sensitive identification data can be accessed remotely by an RFID reader, either carried by a police officer or installed on “smart lampposts” that the city has been trialing in some districts, thus enabling the government to track people in real time.

All residents who have reached the age of 15 must carry their ID card at all times as proof of  identity under Hong Kong law.

The design of the new ID card. Photo: Handout
All Hongkongers are required to replace their ID cards with new ones within a specified period according to their year of birth. Failing to do so may lead to prosecution and even imprisonment. Photo: Facebook

In response, the government stressed that the maximum “readable” range of the RFID chips on the new cards would only be 10cm, and that the cards featured “superior” anti-surveillance and privacy protection technologies that are hard to hack. The Immigration Department, which oversees the card replacement, also said that robust encryption would generate a one-off passcode to ensure access to authorized personnel only, and data for different applications would be segregated.

However, RFID technology is not new to Hongkongers. The city’s residents are already familiar with the ubiquitous tap-and-go Octopus stored value cards used to pay for public transportation and meals, and even access private residential quarters.

But some experts remain unconvinced by the government’s assurance.

A local IT professional told the Apple Daily that similar RFID technology had been in use at the massive Hong Kong airport to track bags all the way from a plane to delivery to passages, meaning such tracking could be done on a large scale throughout a huge venue.

A baggage inspector at Hong Kong airport attaches RFID tags onto bags for more effective tracking. Photo: Handout

The newspaper suggests that those who worry about being watched can wrap their new cards in a piece of aluminum foil, a common material known for outstanding electromagnetic shielding, as aluminium is a good conductor that can reflect almost all of an incident electric wave.

Meanwhile, there have also been reminders to protesters in the city that they should disable the location tracking function of their smartphones and map apps when they take part in protracted rallies. To ensure better protection from surveillance, in additoon to putting on masks and helmets, protesters should use anonymous mobile phone cards or simply not carry a phone.

Each phone sold on the market carries a unique International Mobile Equipment Identity code, which may potentially expose a user’s real-time location when the phone goes online.

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