Hong Kong pan-democrats raise privacy concerns as police plan body-worn cameras for all frontline officers by 2021

Force says trials show devices ‘enhance handling of confrontations’ and help de-escalate situations

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 May, 2017, 3:56pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 May, 2017, 11:28pm

Pan-democrat lawmakers have raised concerns about citizens’ privacy in light of plans to provide every frontline police officer with a camera by 2021 to “enhance the handling of confrontations” and public protests.

At the Legislative Council’s debate on the issue on Friday morning, Undersecretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu, who is tipped to take over as security minister in July, said the force had conducted two field trials on “body-worn video cameras” – recording devices which can be attached to officers’ uniforms – since 2013.

The cameras were used in “confrontational scenarios”. From 2013 to March this year, police recorded a total of 724 pieces of footage during 493 incidents, of which 172 were used in investigations or submitted as evidence.

Lee said that for about 80 to 90 per cent of the recordings, the use of the camera had helped to de-escalate situations and had “stopped the subjects from overreacting”.

In cases involving assaults on officers or wilful obstruction of officers in the due execution of their duties, relevant footage also served as important evidence for convictions, he added.

“In view of the cameras’ effectiveness, the police force plans to gradually extend the use of them so that each frontline uniformed police officer could be equipped with a camera by about 2021,” he said.

The force currently has 1,390 such cameras for officers in the Emergency Units, the Police Tactical Unit and various police districts. About 270 more will be procured in the next few months, assistant commissioner Patrick Hodson said.

The pro-establishment camp supported the proposal and suggested that it be implemented more quickly, but the pan-democratic camp questioned if people’s privacy would be compromised and whether the cameras had also helped to stop police from “overreacting” when handling protests.

Can you put the guidelines on the internet so that we can be confident that ... there won’t be any selective filming?
Nathan Law, Demosisto lawmaker

Demosisto’s Nathan Law Kwun-chung, who was a student leader in the 2014 Occupy protests, said: “The undersecretary said that police guidelines mention when to stop recording or even delete footage – can you put the guidelines on the internet so that we can be confident that ... there won’t be any selective filming?”

Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun said he was worried that single-perspective recordings could lead to injustice when the videos were used for criminal prosecution.

“There are other cameras that can record from multiple angles. Is it possible for police to use such technology?” To asked.

Dismissing those concerns, Lee said there were rules in place to prevent officers from misusing the cameras.

Strict guidelines for body cameras

“The privacy commissioner has approved our guidelines,” Lee said. “An officer must also report to his supervisor after recording the video ... and a video that is not needed can only be removed on a special system independent from the filming officers.”

Hodson added that deletion could be made only 31 days after filming. Before recording, an officer should notify the subjects, while during the recording, a red light would be displayed on the camera on an outward-facing screen, he said.

The force added that more than 10,000 police officers had been trained so far on the use of such cameras to ensure that they were operated in compliance with privacy laws.