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Hong Kongers rush for ‘burner’ phones over tracing fears

Electronics shops in Hong Kong have seen a sharp increase in demand for cheap burner phones as the territory’s government eases restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but pushes the use of a contact-tracing app that has raised privacy concerns.

Pro-democracy protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019 and a sweeping National Security Law was imposed last year by Beijing in response, along with the arrest of most of its prominent pro-democracy advocates.

The swift authoritarian turn taken by the government, which denies curbing the rights and freedoms of the territory’s 7.5 million residents, has resulted in deep-seated mistrust of public policies, including of measures to curb the pandemic.

Photo: Bloomberg

Hong Kong Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan (陳肇始) said that the app poses no privacy risks, as it only stores data on users’ phones and no third party collects them.

The app notifies users if they had been in the same place with a person confirmed with COVID-19.

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

In Sham Shui Po, more than a dozen vendors said that they have seen a spike in demand for old 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 vendor at Phone House, who said she sold 50 phones in the past week, compared with the usual 10 or so per week previously.

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Other vendors reported a three or four-fold increase in sales of cheap phones.

“I have seen a lot more people asking about and buying older phones over Chinese New Year,” said Andy Kwok of Ah Ling Telecommunications. “I have had to tell them the phone needs to 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 as little as HK$300 (US$38.70).

Meanwhile, newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai (黎智英) was again denied bail ahead of his April trial on charges of colluding with foreign forces.

Additional reporting by AP

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