The government has said it will not activate certain functions on its new smart lampposts, following public concerns over privacy.

The first phase of the three-year smart lamppost pilot scheme is being implemented in Kwun Tong and the Kai Tak development zone as part of the government’s plan to foster smart city development. Fifty smart lampposts with sensors, data connectivity and cameras were installed last month, with 350 more set to be rolled out.

There have been public concerns over what kind of information the lampposts will be able to collect, with protesters worried about whether their data could be collected by the police or other departments. However, the government has said the devices do not have any facial recognition functions and data will not be passed onto third parties for facial recognition purposes.

smart lampposts
Smart lampposts. Photo: GovHK.

Tony Wong, an assistant government chief information officer, told an RTHK radio programme on Wednesday morning that the location, specifications and functions of each lamppost will be made public as soon as possible, so that the public can monitor their roll-out.

Three functions will remain disabled owing to public concerns, Wong said. They include a function to detect vehicle speed using bluetooth device recognition, a function to detect car types using licence plate recognition, and a function to video monitor the dumping of industrial waste at blackspots.

Other functions unrelated to privacy will be activated. Traffic and weather data will be sent to the Hong Kong Observatory, the Environmental Protection Department and the Transport Department, but no data will be provided to law enforcement agencies.

“We realised that the public may not know much about the functions, so we want to conduct a wide-ranging consultation,” he said.

“We do not have any functions for facial recognition… even for traffic snapshots, we will decrease the quality to a point that faces cannot be recognised, before the data is made public,” he added. “The waste dumping monitors are high-quality cameras, but we have not activated them.”

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Wong said the government hoped to form a ten-member consultation committee of experts within a month to assess whether the use of the lamposts will be in line with privacy guidelines. The government will also consult district councils.

Calls for public consultation

Wong also said the lampposts can dispatch data with RFID technology – meaning radio-frequency identification – but they will not be able to obtain data from residents’ new identity cards.

IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok said more information should be provided to the public.

“A public consultation is needed… it’s better than a closed-door consultation committee,” he said on the RTHK programme.

Charles Mok
Charles Mok. File Photo: Charles Mok.

He said such technology was welcomed in some western countries because of threats such as terrorism, but public opinions have changed and people have started to oppose such lampposts.

“This is not just a technological problem,” he said.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.