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Facebook pauses sharing WhatsApp user info with Hong Kong authorities

The company said it will review China's new National Security Law, which went into effect Tuesday and is widely seen as a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
Image: Protesters demonstrate against a new national security law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020.
Protesters demonstrate against a new national security law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020.Vincent Yu / AP file

Facebook and its popular WhatsApp messaging service are putting a hold on what information they share with Hong Kong law enforcement, as the company reviews a sweeping new security law from Beijing.

Twitter and Google had similarly paused such sharing last week, spokespeople for the companies said Monday.

China's National Security Law, which went into effect Tuesday, is widely seen as a crackdown on Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters. The law bypasses Hong Kong's semi-autonomous status and will grant Beijing the ability to create special police units to target the city's “troublemakers.”

Like all major American tech companies, WhatsApp and Facebook respond to legal requests from countries around the world if they meet certain criteria. WhatsApp automatically uses end-to-end encryption, meaning the company is unable to see the contents of its users' conversations. It does, however, regularly share users' metadata, like location data and call dates and times, when law enforcement requests it.

But the company is putting a pause on that practice when it comes to Hong Kong.

“Privacy has never been more important than now, and we remain committed to providing private and secure messaging services to our users in Hong Kong," a WhatsApp spokesperson said in a statement Monday. "We will pause reviewing law enforcement requests for WhatsApp user data from the Hong Kong government pending further assessment of the impact of the National Security Law, including formal human rights due diligence and consultations with human rights experts."

The messaging app Telegram is also refusing such requests, according to Hong Kong Free Press.

The law criminalizes a broad swath of behaviors, including anything that promotes secession and subversion from China's mainland, and it's unclear how it will be applied in daily life in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Police Force has claimed it may criminalize banners and chants promoting Hong Kong independence.

Google said in a statement that it would continue to review the details of the new law, after the company paused production on any new data requests from Hong Kong authorities last week.

Peter Micek, general counsel at the international digital rights advocacy group Access Now, said the decision was a “smart move” for Facebook and WhatsApp.

“They need a bit of a break to give time to digest the new law and the new powers that authorities in Hong Kong have and how that's going to impact Facebook and WhatsApp's ability to respect human rights in its operations there,” Micek said.

In the second half of last year, Hong Kong made 241 legal requests for user data from Facebook and WhatsApp, which processed just under half of them, according to the company's transparency report.