Explainer: What You Should Know About “LeaveHomeSafe” App

The Hong Kong government announced a few days ago that after February 18th, the restaurant’s evening dine-in can resume business until 10 pm, and a table of 4 diners is allowed, provided that diners need to download “LeaveHomeSafe” App, scanning the relevant QR code, or register personal information, filling in the name and phone number and other information before entering the restaurant.

In addition to restaurants, all the sports facilities, fitness centres, beauty salons, and public entertainment places can resume operation on the condition that the owners display the LeaveHomeSafe App and help register the personal information of customers.

Regarding the new measures implemented by the government, many citizens expressed concern, believing that the App may lead to leaks of privacy and personal information. However, what exactly is the function of this App? What permissions does it need from users?

 What is it?

After scanning the LeaveHomeSafe QR code, customers line up at a restaurant in Kennedy Town on Feb. 24, 2020. (Photo: Ice Yu)

“LeaveHomeSafe” (安心出行) is an application to notify the risks of infecting the serious special infectious pneumonia launched by the Hong Kong government on November 16, 2020. The App is available for free download in both the APP store and Google store, and the total number of downloads is currently about 2.79 million.

Screenshot of LeaveHomeSafe App’s interface. (Photo: Lily Chan)

The Secretary for Food and Health Bureau, Sophia Chan Siu-chee, stated in the press release that the purpose of the App is to facilitate citizens to record their whereabouts on their own, thereby helping the government to follow up the confirmed cases of the new infectious pneumonia.

Process of using LeaveHomeSafe App.

What permissions does it need?

Citizens have privacy concerns over the app since it can access rights’ to users’ smartphone function like camera,USB storage,GPS and Wifi,etc.

Screenshot of LeaveHomeSafe official website.

In response, the government deleted the numbers of permissions of the App in December last year, from 15 to 7. The cancelled ones include the controversial “Read the content of USB storage” and “View Wi-Fi connection”.

The current version of “LeaveHomeSafe” does not require users to register, nor does it record names. According to the Google Play Store, the App has permissions to read photos and videos in the user’s mobile phone, have full network access rights, retrieve running applications, receive Internet data and so on.

In response to citizens’ concerns about personal privacy and data security, the government has repeatedly pointed out that “LeaveHomeSafe” does not have a location tracking function, nor does it collect users’ global positioning system (GPS) data, so the software does not actively track users’ whereabouts. At the same time, the user’s travel records will only be stored on the user’s mobile phone and will not be uploaded to any government system.

It is worth mentioning that Singapore began to implement a similar software TraceTogether in March last year. At the beginning, the Singapore government claimed that she would collect the contact information for tracing Covid-19 cases only. However, the Singapore government earlier admitted that the police could access relevant information for investigating criminal cases after they had obtained authorization.

Because of TraceTogether’ s lessons learned, although the Hong Kong government has repeatedly clarified that the data obtained by “LeaveHomeSafe” will not be used for other purposes other than fighting the epidemic, it cannot completely relieve the public’s doubts.

Comparison of Access Permission between LeaveHomeSafe and TraceTogether.

Can people refuse to use?

Currently the government stipulates that people must use “LeaveHomeSafe” to scan the code to record their whereabouts before entering restaurants or public facilities. However, if citizens do not want to scan the code, they can choose to write down their personal information, including name and phone number as an alternative, which will be retained for 31 days.

At the same time, in fact, the government’s regulations for scanning QR codes do not explicitly require the use of “LeaveHomeSafe”. Therefore, some netizens have produced their own alternative software “GoOutWithDuck” with similar functions.

The “GoOutWithDuck” software was originally published on the HeaDuck website. The screenshot of the website.

It is an open-source software and theoretically has higher security. Users can use “GoOutWithDuck” to scan the QR code for “LeaveHomeSafe” and record their itinerary voluntarily, providing citizens with another option.

Fighting Coronavirus with Big Data

Under the epidemic situation, in addition to Hong Kong and Mainland China, the governments of many countries and regions also hope to use big data to respond to the epidemic.

Apple and Google jointly launched an application called Exposure Notifications Express in September 2020. When the user have close contact with a Covid-19 patient, Bluetooth in the mobile phone will detect it and automatically warn. So far, 22 countries around the world have adopted this application.

The conflict between the need for epidemic prevention and the protection of personal privacy in the era of big data is inevitably getting into the public eye.

Feature image by Ice Yu

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