Electronics shops in Hong Kong have seen a sharp increase in demand for cheap burner phones as the Beijing-ruled city government eases coronavirus restrictions while pushing the use of a contact-tracing app which is raising privacy concerns, Reuters reports.
The term “burner phone” usually refers to cheap, disposable pre-paid mobile phones that are often associated with illegal activities. However, people can use burner phones for legitimate temporary phone numbers. In Hong Kong the term may refer simply to cheap old smartphones.
“I’m buying a burner phone because the government clearly doesn’t trust Hong Kong people, so why would I trust them?” said Vincent, 28, an accountant who gave only his first name because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Health Secretary Sophia Chan said the app poses no privacy risks as it only stores data on the user’s phone and no third party collects it. The app notifies users if they have been in the same place with a person confirmed to have Covid-19.
In Hong Kong there is a deep-seated mistrust of government public policies, including measures to curb Covid-19.
On Thursday, Hong Kong lifted many limits on restaurants and other venues such as gyms and beauty salons. These are now required to ask customers to scan a QR code with the LeaveHomeSafe app, which authorities use for contact tracing.
Civil servants are also supposed to scan the code before entering and leaving government offices.
More than a dozen phone vendors told Reuters they have seen a spike in demand for old smartphones since last week, when the government announced plans to ease restrictions and require people to use the app.
“People are just looking for a cheap smartphone that can run the LeaveHomeSafe app,” said Wong, a vendor at Phone House, who said she sold 50 phones in the past week, compared with the usual 10 or so per week previously. Other vendors reported a three- or four-fold increase in sales of cheap phones.