Google reveals details of 3 instances it removed content at request of Hong Kong police

© Hong Kong Free Press

Google has revealed details of three occasions where it complied with requests from Hong Kong police to remove content from its platforms during the first half of 2021, including cases involving a Gmail account, a Google Drive account and a Blogger account.

Photo: Mitchell Luo via Unsplash.

The three removals were part of 18 requests the company received from Hong Kong authorities involving 41 items, more than half of which were complied with.

The US tech giant published details of the requests that it deemed to be of public interest. One requested the removal of a Google Drive account that the police said “was being used for blackmail,” the Google report said. “It contained mostly intimate images of women, as well as some images that appeared to be news photographs of political activities.”

According to the report, “the police force claimed that if [Google] failed to comply with their request, [it] would be in violation of Hong Kong laws.”

Photo: Google transparency report screenshot.

The second request pertained to a Gmail account “they claimed was impersonating a senior government official and sending phishing emails to government employees,” Google said, pointing to a potential cybersecurity incident targeting the government.

The third police request cited a court injunction and requested the removal of a post on Google’s Blogger platform, as it “allegedly [engaged] in doxxing and harassment against police officers and their families.”

Police did not respond to HKFP’s question on whether any arrests were made in connection with the removal requests, saying that they do not comment on individual cases. “Police will request information or cooperation from the relevant persons or organisations (including internet service providers) to assist police in the prevention and detection of crime,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “The requests are made only when necessary for performing duties and in accordance with the law.”

A spokesperson from the Innovation and Technology Bureau, whose Government Computer Emergency Response Team handles cybersecurity incidents arising within the government, told HKFP it had no additional comment on the case.

Photo: Google transparency report screenshot.

In September, HKFP reported that Google had provided user data to Hong Kong authorities in response to three requests in the six months after the national security law was enacted in July last year, despite a pledge that it would stop responding to any such requests unless they were made via the US Justice Department.

There are also fears that Hong Kong is seeing its internet freedoms shrink with report of websites being blocked by the city’s internet service providers following requests from authorities. Websites containing the personal data of police officers, commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre and calling for democracy in Hong Kong have been inaccessible to internet users in the city in previous months.

Of the 18 removal requests Google said it had received from the government, 12 were from the police requesting 17 items to be removed. Five were from an unknown agency, classified as “other,” requesting the removal of 23 items. One request was from the city’s data protection authority and asked for one item to be removed.

More than half of requests complied with

The number of removal requests Google received from the authorities during this period was the highest since December 2019, when it reported a total of 19 requests received during the six months prior.

Ten of the 18 requests cited “privacy and security” as reasons behind them and related to the platforms Blogger, Google Docs, YouTube, and Google’s web search engine. Other reasons given to support the requests included impersonation, bullying or harassment, copyright, defamation, fraud, and trademark issues.

Photo: Google transparency report screenshot.

Google data indicated that it ended up complying with about 56 per cent of the government’s requests. It removed 24 per cent – or four – of the items per police requests, but said it rejected or considered that there was insufficient information to support the removal requests of 70 per cent – or 12 – of the items featured in these requests. One item had already been removed by the time Google was able to deal with the request.

Meanwhile, the tech company said it ended up removing 83 per cent – or 19 – of the items requested by the “other” government agency, on five occasions.

Professional Information Security Association Frankie Wong said Hong Kong’s Office of the Government Chief Information Officer may first investigate whether a government department had received impersonating emails and may file abuse reports with Google itself or via police. “The government may not make announcement about the incident unless the public was affected,” he told HKFP.