Citizens’ rights shortchanged in surveillance law amendment, says IT lawmaker

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Charles Mok says an amendment to the decade-old Interception of Communications and Surveillance Ordinance inadequately limits the government’s cyber-surveillance powers.

An amendment to an existing communications law fails to adequately limit the government’s online snooping, putting Hongkongers at risk. This concern was relayed by the IT Functional Constituency representative Charles Mok Nai-kwong (莫乃光) and other legislators during the ongoing Interception of Communications and Surveillance (Amendment) Ordinance debate.

Among other changes, the amendment tightens control over authorities’ interception of “communication transmitted by a postal service” or “communication transmitted by a telecommunications system”. Citizens who are under watch will gain the right to know when surveillance begins – a step up from the current ordinance, which only requires authorities to notify subjects of the duration of surveillance.

“The amendment bill grants the commissioner greater power in keeping legal enforcement agencies in check, which is good,” remarked Mok, “yet this bill still falls short in resolving our present problem … ­­­­­­­­the excessive power of police in the Internet space.” This means little keeps the government from looking into citizens’ social media and smartphone app usage, he noted during the debate.

Mok also sees problems due to a key difference in how data is transmitted through the Internet compared to other transmission methods. The current ordinance applies to interception of communications that are in the process of transmission, but does not restrict transcription of communications that have already been transmitted, such as an e-mail in a user’s inbox or, in the big picture, metadata, such as dates and times communications are sent and delivered and storage locations of digital files.

Mok told the Harbour Times that James To Kun-sun (涂謹申) and Dennis Kwok Wing-hang (郭榮鏗), have been trying to propose amendments to the amendment bill, to no avail.

“The government introduces only technical amendments [in the bill], such as expanding the commissioners’ power to investigate [surveillance operations]. Any attempts to reform the parts of ordinance that are not mentioned in the amendment bill were deemed irrelevant to the long title, and were rejected … by the government … and the [Legco] president,” Mok said.

In response to this criticism, Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok (黎棟國) reiterated that interception and surveillance operations are never targeted at the general public, but at specific persons on the grounds of “preventing or detecting serious crime, or protecting public security”.

He refused to disclose whether some surveillance operations involve monitoring certain communication software, saying that “criminals will take advantage [of such information]”.