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Hong Kong protests

Hong Kongers wreck 'smart' lampposts on surveillance fears

Protesters suspect ties to Beijing's facial recognition network

HONG KONG -- Protesters here have turned their fury on camera-equipped "smart" streetlights installed by the local government, devices that many see as a potential Trojan horse for mainland China's surveillance state.

Cheers rose from a crowd as a group used saws and ropes to topple lampposts in a residential area of Kowloon Bay on Saturday. About 20 of the lights had been damaged or destroyed by Wednesday.

The semiautonomous territory's government installed 50 of the lampposts in May as part of its smart city initiative and plans to bring the total to 400 within three years. It has said the lights collect data on weather and air pollution as well as monitor traffic.

But when protesters dismantled one, they reportedly found a camera containing hardware from manufacturers connected with China's "Skynet" surveillance network, which is known to use facial recognition technology.

This added to suspicions that the cameras are connected to Chinese networks. Hong Kong's government has denied that the lampposts have facial recognition capabilities.

Many Hong Kong residents are sensitive about how their personal information is used, and they balk at some of the digital technologies that have spread on the mainland. Fear of Beijing strangling the territory's freedoms is among the factors that have kept the protests going for nearly three months after they began in response to a controversial extradition bill.

In July, the local government moved quickly to deny rumors that the territory would introduce a social credit system like the one being implemented on the mainland. That system integrates factors such as traditional credit scores, traffic violations and contributions to society into a single number for each person, used to determine administrative rewards or penalties.

Hong Kong-based TickTack Technology, which supplied parts for the streetlights, said it was pulling out of the project, according to local media.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam lamented the destruction of the streetlights, saying that the territory's innovation and technological development are for the sake of young people.

Some in mainland China contend that the sweeping surveillance system there has improved public order. But one 20-something Hong Konger rejects such arguments. 

"Hong Kong is safe in the first place," she said. "This is just strengthening government surveillance."

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