Hong Kong’s Mask Ban Pits Anonymity Against the Surveillance State

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Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s decision Friday to ban face masks as a tool to fight the city’s escalating clashes between marchers and police sets a protest movement bent on anonymity against the most sophisticated surveillance state in the world.

For Hong Kong’s anti-government protestors, who originally took to the streets four months ago to object to a proposed law that would allow people to be extradited to mainland China for trial, the mask is a necessary tool to avoid the feared hand of Beijing’s surveillance apparatus.

For the Hong Kong government and its supporters in Beijing, the battle is about restoring law, order and control.

The outcome of the battle will do much to determine the future of Hong Kong itself.

One country, two technologies

China is already a world leader in artificial intelligence and has plans to become dominant in the industry. Four Chinese A.I. startups, including facial recognition giants Sensetime and Megvii, are already worth over $1 billion.

In mainland China, facial recognition technology is ubiquitous. It helps citizens take out trash, monitors napping students and jaywalkers—and also profiles large segments of China’s Uighur ethnic minority in order to track them.

In Hong Kong, facial recognition technology is much less prevalent in day-to-day life. But protesters have grown increasingly concerned that police uses facial recognition and other tracking tools to make arrests, in part because the Hong Kong police force has denied requests to release information on its use of the technology.

At the end of a night after protests, CCTV cameras in subway stations and other public areas are often blacked out with paint, smashed in, or dangling from their wires, the victims of protestors wary of surveillance. 

Those who already fear Beijing’s encroaching legal and political influence see in Lam’s new policy the shadowy hand of China’s central government.

“Obviously this is out of her control. She is executing some order from Beijing,” Hong Kong Legislative Council member Claudia Mo, referring to Lam, told Fortune.

Lam has denied that she is acting on orders from China’s central government, and points to facial recognition’s crime-fighting capacities—the ones being thwarted by protesters’ face-coverings—as the reason behind the ban.

“Almost all protesters who have carried out violence have covered their face,” Lam said at a press conference Friday. “Their purpose was to hide their identity and evade the law.”

The movement’s survival

For those who see anonymity as their strongest weapon, the battle for the mask is a fight for the movement’s survival.

Even more than traditional repression measures, like curfews, the anti-mask decision cuts at the movement’s most powerful tool: privacy. The Hong Kong movement is leaderless, the identities of protesters are always concealed, and one of their central slogans, “be water,” is based on the idea of being shapeless and formless—and therefore outside the reach of authorities.

“The no mask thing […] will make people more recognizable from pictures and other media recordings and therefore easier to follow up with arrests and prosecution,” Steve Tsang, director of the University of London’s SOAS China Institute, says. “That is a very reasonable and legitimate concern on the part of many of the demonstrators.”

The face mask ban includes the use of face paint, which has been shown to thwart facial recognition software. 

Black face masks and gas masks have come to represent the protests themselves. Wearing a mask is seen as a signal of solidarity with the movement—citizens have gotten tattoos of masks and protestors have used black spray paint to draw masks on models’ faces in bus stop advertisements. 

A history of face-covering

Since June, when the current protests began, the use of masks has increased in tandem with arrests and violence in Hong Kong. Early on, most people attending rallies and demonstrations did not wear face-covering masks. At the most, they donned flimsy surgical masks.

Now, those masks are standard attire, as are gas masks with varying levels of protection and coverage, and it is not uncommon to see hardline protestors with full face and body coverings.

There are other variations as well.

On Oct. 1, when thousands in Hong Kong marched and fought police on China’s National Day, many protesters sported Guy Fawkes masks, which have been a symbol of popular resistance since they appeared in the 2005 film “V for Vendetta” but had not been widely seen in Hong Kong before Tuesday.

As its styles and uses have changed, the mask itself has become more than a tool; it has evolved into a potent symbol of the protest movement.

“The face mask ban is just ill-conceived, very very silly thing to have done,” Tsang, of SOAS, says. “All that it does is […] make people even more angry.”

Before Lam’s Friday press conference even began, hundreds of people had already taken to the streets and message boards were lighting up with calls for thousands more, signaling that the move will likely inflame another weekend of intense protests.

As of Friday evening, seven subway stations had been shut and protestors had filled central Hong Kong’s main thoroughfares to protest the ban, nearly all of them wearing face masks.

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