Facebook and its WhatsApp messaging service announced that they plan to put on hold sharing user information with Hong Kong police, citing China’s National Security Law, which went into effect on Tuesday. Facebook also said it plans to review the law before processing future requests from Hong Kong law enforcement.
According to the BBC, Facebook has said that “no personal information about users in the region was held at, or disclosed from, its Hong Kong office.” Facebook also emphasized its belief in freedom of expression and affirmed its support for citizens who wish to express themselves without fearing for their safety.
The company has been willing to share user information with international police departments as long as their requests meet their strict criteria. Applications must include a valid subpoena issued for an official criminal investigation, a search warrant, and a court order. Despite using automatic end-to-end encryption, WhatsApp also shares its users’ metadata with the police. These data contain contact numbers reached through the app, time of contact, and duration. WhatsApp also shares IP addresses, “phone identifiers,” location, and contact data.
China’s new law has forced the company to rethink its strategy. MSNBC shared a statement made by a WhatsApp spokesperson on Monday. The spokesperson stressed the importance of privacy today and pointed out its commitment to give Hong Kong users privacy and security. He also said that WhatsApp would assess the National Security Law’s impact before complying with future requests from the Hong Kong government.
Mainland China has banned both Facebook and WhatsApp. As a special administrative region, with fuller freedoms, Hong Kong allows these companies to operate.
The National Security Law threatens to penalize any action promoting “secession and subversion from China’s mainland.” These actions may include “conspiring with foreigners to provoke ‘hatred’ of the Chinese government or Hong Kong authorities,” or simply putting up “banners and chants promoting Hong Kong independence.” The government may sentence violators to life imprisonment.
Immediately after the law’s passage, prominent pro-democracy activists resigned from their groups, fearing prosecution. Hong Kong also removed pro-democracy books from libraries.
Google and Twitter had also stated they would pause data sharing with Hong Kong police, pending review of the new law. MSNBC said the Hong Kong police made 241 legal requests for Facebook and WhatsApp in the second half of 2019. Only under half of those requests were processed.
Hong Kong is a former British territory. The British government handed it over to China in 1997, under the agreement that Hong Kong would enjoy more freedom for 50 years.