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Hong Kong sees rush for starters as government pushes application to find contacts

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Justin Chan




Hong Kong (Reuters) – Electronic stores in Hong Kong have seen a sharp rise in demand for cheap flash phones as the government of Chinese-ruled cities eased coronavirus restrictions but pushed back on a tracking app that has raised privacy concerns.

A staff member maintains a QR code for the COVID-19 “LeaveHomeSafe” application to track customer contacts at a restaurant following the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Hong Kong, China February 18, 2021. REUTERS / Tyrone Siu
Consumers scan QR codes for COVID-19 “LeaveHomeSafe” app to track contacts in a restaurant following coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) in Hong Kong, China February 18, 2021. REUTERS / Tyrone Siu
QR codes for the “LeaveHomeSafe” application COVID-19 for tracking contacts are posted in a restaurant, after the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Hong Kong, China February 18, 2021. REUTERS / Tyrone Siu
A staff member delivers a presentation of the COVID-19 “LeaveHomeSafe” application for tracking contacts in a restaurant following the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Hong Kong, China February 18, 2021. REUTERS / Tyrone Siu
A staff member maintains a QR code for the COVID-19 “LeaveHomeSafe” application to track customer contacts at a restaurant following the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Hong Kong, China February 18, 2021. REUTERS / Tyrone Siu

The former British colony saw anti-government and anti-China protests in 2019 and a comprehensive national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020 in response, along with the arrest of most of its prominent pro-democracy activists.

The rapid authoritarian turn taken by the government, which denies restricting the rights and freedoms of special administrative regions of 7.5 million inhabitants, has resulted in deep mistrust of public policies, including measures to curb the coronavirus.

Health Secretary Sophia Chan said the app poses no privacy risks as it only stores data on users’ phones and no third party collects it. The app notifies users if they were in the same place with a person confirmed with COVID-19.

I’m buying a lighted phone because the government clearly does not trust the people of Hong Kong, so why would I trust them? said Vincent, 28, an accountant who only gave his first name because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Contacts tracking applications have raised similar privacy and trust issues worldwide, from Singapore to the United States.

Hong Kong on Thursday lifted limits on how many people could sit together in restaurants at four by two and break time to eat at 22:00 by 6:00.

Newly opened restaurants and venues, such as gyms or beauty salons, are required to write down customer details or ask them to scan a QR code with the LeaveHomeSafe app, which authorities use to track contacts.

Civil servants were asked to scan the code before entering and leaving government offices.

In the working-class neighborhood of Sham Shui Po, a Mecca for cheap electronics, more than a dozen retailers told Reuters they have seen an increase in demand for older smartphones since last week, when the government announced plans to ease restrictions.

People are just looking for a cheap smartphone that can run the LeaveHomeSafe app, said Wong, a saleswoman at Phone House, which said it sold 50 phones over the past week, compared to 10 or more common in the previous week.

Other retailers reported a three- or four-fold increase in cheap phone sales.

I have seen many more people asking and buying older phones during Chinese New Year, said Andy Kwok of Ah Ling Telecommunications. I had to tell you that the phone must be at least on Android 8 (for the app) to run.

The most popular phone was the Samsung Galaxy J5, released in 2015, now selling for less than HK $ 300 ($ 38.70).

The app has been downloaded 840,000 times since its launch last November, with more than 70,000 sites participating in the scheme, the government said this week.

($ 1 = 7.7524 Hong Kong dollars)

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