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Chinese smart card firm collecting Hong Kong people’s data at border checkpoints

Police in China. (MaxPixel/Released)
July 22, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Chinese e-government and smart card firm Aisino, whose parent company is under the direct control of China’s cabinet, the State Council, has been awarded contracts to process Hong Kong people’s ID card and other data as they cross the border into mainland China.

Aisino has contracts to operate electronic channels at Hong Kong immigration checkpoints on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, the Hong Kong-Shenzhen High-speed Rail terminus at West Kowloon Station and Lien Tong/Heung Yuen Wai pier.

Its parent company, missile and satellite-maker China Aerospace Science & Industry Corp., is a large-scale, state-owned high-tech enterprise that was formerly a defense ministry research institute, and which remains under the direct management of the central government in Beijing,

It is described on its own website as “a military-industrial enterprise which plays an important role in China’s strategic and national security industry.”

Repeated calls to Aisino’s Beijing headquarters in May yielded no comment from the company, but an employee who answered the phone at Aisino’s Hong Kong subsidiary confirmed that the company is supplying immigration-related “networks and systems.”

“These networks aren’t open, so there would be no way that data in them could be transferred overseas,” the employee, who declined to be named, said. “The data is all stored by us in our own data centers, but the government doesn’t allow us to design [the systems] ourselves.”

“At the design stage, the government’s involvement is very full-on, and they have to test everything from a security and privacy point of view,” the employee said.

High-tech companies with a military-industrial pedigree have cornered the market in digital security systems, managing cloud computing, big data and mobile internet technology to record details of smart card transactions across China, from the tax system to smart ID cards, according to remarks made by Aisino deputy general manager Chen Rongxing at an industry conference in May 2016.

“Aisino Corp. could produce almost any kind of card you carry in your pocket, including your ID card, bank card, Hong Kong and Macau passes and so on,” Chen told journalists at the conference.

Veteran Chinese journalist Ching Cheong said the company’s involvement in key cross-border infrastructure and data storage has given rise to concerns that Hong Kong’s data may join that of more than one billion residents of mainland China, where the authorities are increasingly using it to track and control their citizens.

“If they try to integrate data from the Hong Kong immigration system into mainland Chinese databases, then that is problematic,” Ching said. “We should sound the alarm about this, because of there is integration with the mainland systems, we need to know how this will affect the people of Hong Kong.”

Little confidence in Lam or China

Ching said that while the threat to Hong Kong citizens’ privacy may not be imminent, it is clear that the ruling Chinese Communist Party is seeking to integrate the city with mainland China.

The concerns over Hong Kong people’s data potentially being transferred to China come after weeks of mass protests in the city over plans by the administration of chief executive Carrie Lam to allow extradition of alleged criminal suspects to mainland China on a case-by-case basis.

Ching said he has little confidence that Lam’s administration will defend Hong Kong’s traditional freedoms in the face of political pressure from Beijing.

“It has been very obvious throughout the anti-[extradition] movement that there is no awareness of the need to defend the difference between the two [legal] systems,” Ching said. “This comes down from the top, from Carrie Lam all the way to the understaffed Security Bureau and the Attorney General.”

Ching said the integration of criminal and security databases would have a profound effect on the way the Hong Kong police carry out their duties, further eroding the distinction between the city’s legal system, where the right to a fair trial is generally protected, and that of mainland China, whose leaders have rejected out of hand the notion of judicial independence, and insist that the country’s courts serve the ruling party.

He said greater integration on law enforcement would likely be Beijing’s preferred outcome, especially when faced with mass civil disobedience movements like the 2014 Occupy Central and the anti-extradition protests that have escalated since June 9.

“If they managed to infiltrate the [Hong Kong] police in such a way, it would gradually have the effect of transferring the command and control of the Hong Kong police over to [China], as a single system,” Ching said. “Then the so-called two systems idea wouldn’t exist any more.”

Chinese political commentator Willy Lam said the idea that a Chinese military-industrial company would be entrusted with Hong Kong people’s data was “terrifying.”

“This should send a terrifying signal to the people of Hong Kong,” Lam told RFA. “This is really shocking information, because once Hong Kong’s surveillance systems become integrated with those in the rest of the country, then the Chinese national police will be able to use it … to target ‘trouble-makers’ in Hong Kong.”

“It will enable Beijing to keep tabs on anyone criticizing the government, and their activities,” he said. “It seems as if one country, two systems will exist in name only.”

Reported by Tam Siu-yin for RFA’s Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.