The government has expressed “anger” over what it calls the spreading of “false information” relating to its Covid-19 tracing app after the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA) called on the public to boycott the app over privacy concerns.

The “LeaveHomeSafe” app was made mandatory for dine-in services in the city’s eateries as pandemic restrictions were eased to allow operations until 10pm and up to four diners per table on Thursday. Diners are still able to leave their contact details without the app, but restaurateurs face a fine and jail time if they do not display a “check in” QR code for the app.

HAEA member at booth with a sign that reads “Boycott LeaveHomeSafe.” Photo: HAEA via Facebook.

The HAEA set up public booths in Mong Kok on Thursday to hand out flyers urging a boycott of the government tracing app to “protect privacy.” The alliance raised concerns that personal data entered into the app may be used by the government to monitor its citizens.

“The purpose of ‘LeaveHomeSafe’ is definitely not to prevent the spread of the virus, but to monitor every Hong Kong person,” a statement to its Facebook page read.

“The move will ultimately make the people habitually living in a totalitarian society where their rights are not guaranteed… In a totalitarian society, we must learn to persist in resistance from every detail of life to defend the remaining freedom and to continue hope.” the post added.

The alliance also vowed future campaigns warning the public against using the app.

‘False information’

In response, the Innovation and Technology Bureau accused the alliance of “using the excuse of ‘healthcare’ to publicly disseminate false information… in an attempt to mislead the public and interfere with anti-epidemic work.” 

“The ‘LeaveHomeSafe’ mobile app does not require registration for use. The app does not have a tracking function, and venue check-in data will not be uploaded or transferred to the Government or any other systems. Such data are saved on users’ mobile phones only,” an ITB spokesperson was quoted as saying.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan using the LeaveHomeSafe app. Photo: Carrie Lam via Facebook.

“Matching of users’ check-in data and the issuing of health alerts will only be carried out within the app. Users’ whereabouts will not be disclosed to others. The app does not pose a risk to privacy,” its statement continued.

The ITB added the public “can feel at ease when using the app.”

In a separate statement on Friday, the Health Authority also “strongly refuted” any privacy concerns relating to the app. The authority called on the medical workers “avoid misleading the public.”
 
“With due regard to privacy protection, the HA believes that recording access and departure in public venues through the ‘LeaveHomeSafe’ mobile app can help prevent transmission of the virus and facilitate contact tracing,” its statement read.

A LeaveHomeSafe QR code outside a restaurant. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

HKFP found on Thursday that some patrons had been choosing to avoid using the app over privacy concerns, opting instead to manually leave their contact details.

The app had been downloaded over a million times as of Thursday, according to a Facebook post by Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

The controversy comes amid growing distrust between citizens and authorities following Beijing’s passing of the security law last summer and months of protest and unrest in 2019. Similar concerns over privacy were raised by democrats before a city-wide voluntary Covid-19 testing scheme last September.

Lam to take Sinovac jab

In the same Facebook post on Thursday, Lam announced she would be receiving China’s Sinovac vaccination during the city’s vaccination scheme set to begin next week. The first shipment of the vaccines arrived in Hong Kong on Friday.

Carrie Lam showing LeaveHomeSafe app. Photo: Carrie Lam via Facebook.

“As I have publicly stated, I will receive the first type of vaccines approved for emergency use that arrives in Hong Kong. From the looks of it, I will be taking the mainland-developed… Sinovac jab,” her post read.

Vaccine developer Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac Biotech says its jab has an overall efficacy rate of 50.66 per cent, and if the second dose of vaccine is taken after a 28-day break, the efficacy rate increases to 62.3 per cent. In comparison, BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine, which was approved for emergency use by the department last month, has an efficacy rate of 95 per cent.

The government’s city-wide voluntary vaccination scheme is set to begin next Friday, with online registration available from Tuesday onwards.

Hong Kong reported 13 cases of Covid-19 on Friday, one of which was imported. Eight of the 12 local infections came from an untraceable source.

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Rhoda Kwan

Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.