The Hong Kong government has agreed to disable some functions of the novel “smart lampposts” being installed citywide to make cameras and sensors less sharp-eyed, in a concession to soothe people’s fears of being watched and tracked in a “surveillance city.”

Hong Kong has unveiled an ambitious plan to install hundreds of multifunctional smart lampposts in key districts, which are equipped with advanced sensors, high-definition CCTV cameras, thermal detectors, radio frequency identification tags, data networks, and other features to harness huge chunks of data for analysis and public use as part of its broader smart city drive.

But in the face of suspicion amid the city’s highly charged political atmosphere in recent months, the government has decided to scale back on the trial scheme and stressed that it had no plans to collect facial or personal data and that lampposts facing residential buildings would not have cameras.

The first 400 smart lampposts will be erected across the city’s Central, Admiralty, Wan Chai, Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon Bay, Kwun Tong, etc to collect data relating to a wide range of issues including air quality, traffic and pedestrian flow, and radiation levels. The government said data would be made available to tertiary institutions and various industries for analysis.

The lampposts would also serve as an extra layer of support for the city’s plannned 5G mobile networks.

The camera module of a ‘smart lamppost.’ Photos: Facebook, handout

Still, some functions of the lamps have been withheld until wide public consultations are conducted to gauge the public response and seek approval from district councils, according to the South China Morning Post and RTHK.

For instance, the withheld applications concerned the use of video cameras to detect information on illegal dumping black spots, as well as collecting car plate numbers to analyse the types of vehicles on specific roads by bluetooth traffic detectors and cameras.

The bluetooth transmitters will only be used to offer positioning services such as providing information to citizens and tourists on public facilities nearby, and the radio frequency identification technology used is merely an electronic tag for transmitting signals, which does not collect data or read any data in other devices. One of the applications is to pair up with the Blind Cane Navigation System and provide navigation for the visually impaired.

And, as an additional measure, snapshot images taken by panoramic cameras will be set at low resolution, making the identification of vehicle number plates and the appearance of pedestrians impossible.

“We do not have any plans and will not have any plans to collect facial or individual data,” Assistant Government Chief Information Officer Tony Wong told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday.

Read more: Surveillance fears over new HK ID cards