Can ‘LeaveHomeSafe’ really make Hong Kong safe? Mixed concerns from the public might limit its effectiveness

Story by Lily Chan and Emily Luk

LeaveHomeSafe, the contact tracing app launched by the HKSAR government for combating the spread of COVID-19 in the local community. Yet, it has aroused the public’s concerns about its privacy issues and effectiveness. 

As the government mentioned about the preliminary plan of making the LeaveHomeSafe app mandatory for entering government buildings as well as private business premises, this is a critical issue that we shall all pay attention to. 

Users of LeaveHomeSafe have to scan the QR codes before they entering business premises or public owned buildings. (Photo/Emily Luk)

Since the first local infection case of COVID-19 in Hong Kong on 22 January 2020, the pandemic has spread for over a year. 

Recent statistics of COVID-19 in Hong Kong. (/Emily Luk)

In order to control the virus spread, the Hong Kong government announced the launch of the contact tracing application for mobile devices on 11 November 2020, the purpose of launching such an application is to “encourage the public to keep a more precise record of their whereabouts, minimising the risk of further transmission of the virus and protect Hong Kong together” according to the government.

Timeline of the development of LeaveHomeSafe. (/Emily Luk)

Controversies of LeaveHomeSafe

At the moment, people can still opt to use the paper provided by the business premises and some restaurants to fill in their contact details, arrival and departure time if they have not downloaded the application.

However, as the application requires users to grant various permissions, like the access rights of the mobile app, including access to photos and media, files and storage space, modification or deletion of content, and access to Wi-Fi networks and network permissions, the ‘more than enough’ access rights requests raise people fears of potentially exposing their privacy. 

The most controversial access rights required by LeaveHomeSafe. (/Emily Luk)

People expressed their concerns about exposing their whereabouts and other privacy information by granting access rights to the app. In February, Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA)  held booths in different districts to hand out flyers calling a boycott on the government’s tracking app.

The official Facebook page of HAEA.

As HAEA stated in an email reply, the non-profit making organisation thinks that the government is going to make LeaveHomeSafe compulsory for the citizens, and the intention behind is actually trying to build up a monitoring system in the city through the tracking application under the name of ‘anti-epidemic work’. The organisation also pointed out that similar tracking applications like ‘health code’ and ‘TraceTogether’ in Mainland China and Singapore respectively are collecting the personal information records of the citizens, which the police forces and government departments are authorized to access the collected data. 

Part of the email reply from HAEA for a word interview.

This creates huge potential threats that the HKSAR government might try to launch a database to trace people’s whereabouts by making use of the collected personal information from LeaveHomeSafe.  

In response, the Innovation and Technology Bureau expressed anger at the alliance due to the public dissemination of “false information concerning the mobile app in an attempt to mislead the public and interfere with anti-epidemic work”. 

The Bureau emphasised that the app does not have a tracking function and venue check-in data will not be uploaded or transferred to the government or be disclosed to others. The government also added that the data would be automatically erased after 31 days.

Screenshot of the LeaveHomeSafe official website, stating that the personal data in the app would be erased after 31 days.

However, the government clarified after people judging that some of the data collected in the app would be kept by the government for at least 7 years instead. It explained that this arrangement is only applicable to the confirmed cases or preliminary positive cases. Meanwhile, the term ‘keeping personal data for at least 7 years” is included in the terms and conditions of LeaveHomeSafe, which makes people unconfident about downloading the app. 

The government admitted that some of the personal data will be kept for at least 7 years, but only for the confirmed/preliminary confirmed cases on its official Facebook page.

Moreover, unlike the official contact tracing applications in the UK, Germany, Canada and New Zealand, in which the source codes are open to the public, the Hong Kong Government refused to disclose the source code of LeaveHomeSafe for the sake of ‘protecting copyright’. 

It stated that the application is launched by a private firm so the government did not require it to disclose the source code.

In fact, the government itself owns the copyright of the application according to the information shown on the official website. Some members of the public hence once again claim this is not a convincing explanation from the authority. 

According to Alfred SIT Wing-hang, the Secretary of the Innovation and Technology Bureau, he stated that there are 3.77 million downloads of the LeaveHomeSafe application, which has exceeded half of the Hong Kong population on the official Facebook blog on 11 April. 

On the other hand, CHUANG Shuk-kwan, Head of the Communicable Disease Branch of the Centre for Health Production, said ‘there are no confirmed cases that have been found out by LeaveHomeSafe’ at a Press Conference in February. Later, SIT explained in a radio programme that the government does not have such a figure, but the application aims to notify the potential infections to conduct a COVID test instead.

People have different responses towards the application. (Video/Emily Luk)

Views of expert and concern group

Some experts also recognised the effectiveness of the app. Dr Hubert T. H. CHAN, Director of the Computer Science Programme at the University of Hong Kong, is one of them. 

Dr CHAN agrees that the application does offer some help in fighting the virus. (Photo/Hubert Chan)

Dr CHAN thinks that the app ‘can help people to record places they have visited’ so ‘it can offer some help in tracking the spread of COVID-19’

Talking about the privacy concerns, he said the government claimed that the private data will only be kept in the user’s phone, so there is no need to worry about the privacy issues as long as the claim is true. 

“If the claim is true and there is no programming error, there is no obvious privacy concern,” said CHAN.

In response to the question that if the application needs any improvements or revision on function or usage, CHAN replied “as a tool for people to record visited places, the current application is sufficient,” but he also added “one might need to investigate whether users are willing to provide more personal data” in order to increase functionality.

The Hospital Authority Employees Alliance suggested alternatives to satisfy the tracking need for anti-epidemic purpose. The organisation stated that ‘Exposure Notification’ co-launched by Apple and Google can be used to trace the close contacts of the infected patients, while this application does not require access right to personal data by simply using Bluetooth function in mobile phones. 

Vaccine Bubble

On 29 April, the government announced the new anti-epidemic plan, ‘Vaccine Bubble’, restaurants are divided into four categories (A, B, C, D) according to the new scheme, there are four different types of operation restrictions respectively. 

Table showing new requirements on the use of LeaveHomeSafe under Vaccine Bubble Scheme. (/Emily Luk)

For types C and D, all the customers entering the eateries have to install the LeaveHomeSafe app which using paper for information record is no longer available. 

Meanwhile, installing LeaveHomeSafe is mandatory for the customers of bars and other entertainment premises including party rooms, karaoke and night clubs under ‘Vaccine Bubble’. 

As many people have not downloaded the application because of various reasons, hence, there are many negative comments towards the new plan but the number of download of LeaveHomeSafe is still expected to rise. However, whether the effectiveness of the application in controlling the spread of COVID-19 can be enhanced is still unknown at the moment. 

On the other hand, Mainland China has introduced its own contact tracking application to fight the epidemic and over 1 billion people are using it. What made such a great difference in people’s acceptance? Click the link below to check out Shenzhen’s case.

Read Part 2: Giving Up Privacy for Safety: Health QR Codes Used by 1 Billion People in China

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