Hong Kong makes wearable trackers mandatory for new arrivals, checks in with ‘surprise calls’ too

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Government CIO promises they don’t record location, just change of location

Hong Kong government CIO Victor Lam with a wristband and tracking app

Hong Kong has made it mandatory for all new arrivals to wear an “electronic wristband” that links to a smartphone to provide location-tracking services, so that authorities can be sure they’re observing COVID-19 quarantine requirements. And the city-state insists its privacy commissioner has signed off on the idea because it “does not pose privacy concerns.”

As explained today by government CIO Victor Lam, “the app will not capture directly the location, but only capture the changes in the location, especially the telecommunication and communication signals around the confinee to ensure that he (or she) is staying at home.”

An earlier press release presaging the devices’ introduction said “The decision of technologies to be used in monitoring was made on a risk-based approach. During the quarantine period, various measures are used to ensure the compliance of quarantine order, including the sharing of real-time location via communications software (WhatsApp or WeChat) by those under quarantine.”

And here’s the fun part in the press release: “The staff at the communication centres set up by the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer will check the location of people under quarantine from time to time and make surprise video calls to ensure that they are staying at their dwelling places.”

Which is a whole new spin on the role of a CIO!

But we digress.

The device is tamper-proof. Government advice is that “If the wristband is broken or the smartphone is disconnected or taken away from the dwelling place, an alert will be sent to the Department of Health and Police.”

The app appears to come from a Hong Kong outfit named Compathnion that bills itself as “an award-winning team with a mission to deliver effective location based solutions to fulfill evolving business needs.”

The exact disposition of the wristband has not been revealed, but Lam’s video shows him wearing what looks like a Tyvek wristband with a loop that could conceivably conceal an RFID or other silicon. CNBC’s report on the device shows something more robust and akin to the MagicBand that Disney properties slap onto their visitors. CNBC also described an enrolment process that requires wearers to pace out the dimensions of their dwellings.

Hong Kong’s government says it has secured 60,000 of the wristbands, and has put in place severe fines for those that don’t wear them, leave their dwellings or try to game the system.

Hong Kong joins Israel and China in the using-tech-to-track-Corona club, with several other currently considering the idea.

What a time to be alive. ®

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