Hong Kong protesters eschew card payments as surveillance fears escalate

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The most popular payment method in Hong Kong is no longer considered safe by many protesters.

As the recent protests over the extradition bill have escalated, people in Hong Kong have become more wary about using their Octopus cards out of fear of mainland government surveillance. Octopus cards are contactless stored-value cards used by 99% of the region’s population between 16 and 65, according to the issuer.

Validating those fears: The police in Hong Kong have reportedly begun asking restaurants in the Hong Kong International Airport for lists of Octopus card transactions, according to Apple Daily, a Hong Kong-based news publication. The transactions the authorities are reportedly demanding are those from Aug. 13 and 14, when thousands of people protested inside the airport, grounding flights for two nights.

Octopus cards are tied to the Hong Kong subway system, but for months, people in Hong Kong have been forgoing their Octopus fare cards and instead purchasing single-ride tickets at the ticketing machines with cash. According to those in these ticketing queues, people are worried their card data could be used by police to press charges against them.

“We haven’t seen examples of digital payment networks being used for mass surveillance of protesters before,” said Brett Scott, a writer, speaker and campaigner focused on the inherent risks of cashless societies. “This is certainly going to show the potential of it.”

Kaydence Shum, who works in public relations in Hong Kong, said protesters are using cash for other things as well, including food, drink and other supplies like helmets and gas masks. In addition to providing protection, helmets and masks also guard against facial recognition systems.

“I hope it does raise awareness that convenience isn’t the only thing to think about in a payment method," Scott, who resides in London, told PaymentsSource. "A lot of digital payments are promoted under the guise of convenience, but convenience isn’t the only thing that people value. We value freedom and privacy and autonomy.”

While privacy advocates like Scott have long raised concerns about digital payment methods, for many consumers, the idea seemed almost too Orwellian to pass muster in many democratic countries.

Yet instances of authoritarian regimes around the world have heightened the fears.

For instance, tech-savvy Venezuelans, dealing with both censorship of payments and a hyper-inflated local currency, have moved some of their wealth into bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Some legal cannabis dispensaries in Canada report that many customers won't use payment cards because they believe the U.S. government could use their transaction activity to deny them access to cross the border, according to a recent PaymentSource research report.

Crypto enthusiasts have been touting the technology for these purposes for nearly a decade, and many say that massive corruption and/or another recession could finally spark the mass adoption of crypto payments.

Yet according to Leo Weiss, who runs the Bitcoin Association of Hong Kong, crypto isn’t being widely used in the region.

According to over-the-counter traders that Weiss has spoken to, interest is up. That said, it’s hard to tie directly to the protests and people’s concerns over government surveillance; it could equally coincide with increased interest in crypto more generally over the past several months.

Crypto “does come up quite a bit in discussions, but those are largely theoretical,” Weiss said.

It’s more about the what-if scenarios, those much like what Apple Daily reported on Aug. 22.

“What we see immediately is that people are much more understanding of what the benefits of crypto could bring to them,” Weiss said. “Half a year ago, people would have listened to our hypothetical rants about people’s money being frozen with disbelief or dismissal — like that only happens in third world countries with massive corruption.”

But now, “there’s wild conspiracy theories going on about martial law or military invasion … and the chance of a ‘bank holiday’ lasting longer than a week isn’t that absurd of a possibility,” he concluded.

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Credit cards Contactless payments Data security Personally identifiable information China