Encryption and privacy issues unclear in Hong Kong's new era

As Hong Kong explores its first days of reunion with China, one of many unanswered questions facing the territory's IT community is how to mesh two diametrically opposed policies toward encryption. Hong Kong's privacy commissioner says the Chinese ban encryption but thinks 'One country, two systems' may yet apply to crypto too. A human rights advocate is not so sure.

As Hong Kong explores its first days of reunion with China, one of many unanswered questions facing the territory's IT community is how to mesh two diametrically opposed policies toward encryption.

To date, the encryption policies of China and Hong Kong have highlighted the sharp divide in how the two governments have dealt with a technology that can be used to ensure privacy through more secure electronic communications.

In typical fashion, Hong Kong's British rulers took a laissez-faire attitude towards the use of encryption technologies. Hong Kong's government realised that the worldwide availability of hardware and software with sophisticated encryption capabilities makes prohibition unenforceable, according to Stephen Lau, privacy commissioner for personal data office in Hong Kong.

"Any person with a modem and a PC could obtain encryption software through the Internet [for] free," said Lau, in a presentation at last week's annual Internet Society meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

In China, meanwhile, the use of encryption technology is highly restricted, noted Lau. "My understanding is that at the present moment, encryption is illegal in China," he said.

Beijing, however, has not revealed many details about its encryption policies, Lau said later.

"There is not much detail, so I think we have to wait and see."

However, China taking over does not mean that Beijing will necessarily restrict the use of encryption technologies in Hong Kong, since the handover is accompanied by the policy of "one country, two systems," noted Lau.

Some observers, however, are taking a less optimistic view.

Authoritarian governments, such as the one in Beijing, are highly unlikely to show any more respect for basic human rights issues, such as the right to privacy, in the online world than they do in the real world, says Jagdish Parikh, online research associate with Human Rights Watch. "And the right to use encryption to ensure privacy online is a very significant part of basic human rights."

Lau, however, noted that encryption in Hong Kong is mainly used by businesses and the financial world, and not so much by average users, although they may be aware of security problems on the Internet.

"Even if you take [a product like] Pretty Good Privacy, to use it is not so easy, so I don't think it is widespread," he said.

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