Hong Kong police’s anti-violence WhatsApp hotlines are suspended after only three days for violating operator’s terms of service

Christy Leung

Facebook suspended 10 of Hong Kong police’s anti-violence WhatsApp hotlines on Friday – just three days after the service’s official launch – citing the fact the messenger app was intended for private messaging only.

The force launched the hotlines on Tuesday to assist in the prevention and detection of crime during the current civil unrest; it intended to use them to gather intelligence about violent incidents, such as photos, recordings and videos from members of the public.

But the Post learned that some of the hotlines were down as early as Tuesday and the force found all of them inoperable on Friday morning. A police source said Facebook had suspended the hotlines.

In a statement issued on Friday, a spokesman for Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, said the terms of use of the app stated that any non-personal use of the services was not allowed unless otherwise authorised by the company.

“WhatsApp is primarily designed for private messaging and we take action to prevent bulk and automated messaging,” the spokesman said.

The police said in a statement on Friday evening that it was the force that had decided to suspend the hotline because of mixed views it had received about it.

“Since the hotline started to operate, a large amount of information was received and at the same time, there were different opinions on the hotline.

“As a result, police decided to suspend the hotline. Police will continue to explore various channels to collect information for the prevention and detection of crime,” it said.

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A police insider admitted the launch of the hotline had not been well prepared. “Apparently the accounts were used for business purposes instead of a private one. The force will look for more channels to serve the anti-violence hotlines,” the source said.

Another police insider echoed this, saying that the execution needed better planning and consideration, as a large influx – as many as 10,000 messages at once – could be regarded as cyberattacks or spamming by the messenger, triggering the system to suspend itself.

Chief Superintendent of Police Public Relations Branch, John Tse had announced the launch of the service on Tuesday. Photo: Sam Tsang

“Measures must be taken now to protect personal data, like names, addresses and photos, sent through the 10 hotlines. The temporary shutdown shows WhatsApp is not ready to handle such a large amount of messages and personal data,” the second source said. “

Police must find a way to make sure the messenger takes the responsibility to protect such personal data.”

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According to WhatsApp’s guidelines on how to fight bulk messaging and automated behaviour, the messenger removed over two million accounts per month for bulk or automatic behaviour between November 2018 and January 2019. Around three-quarters of the bans were made without a recent user report.

It stated that the messenger placed limits on group sizes and how users send messages, adding that around 90 per cent of the messages sent on WhatsApp were from one person to another, and most groups had fewer than 10 people.

“As with any communications platform, sometimes people attempt to exploit our service. Some may want to distribute clickbait links designed to capture personal information, while others want to promote an idea,” the guidelines read.

“Regardless of the intent, automated and bulk messaging violates our terms of service and one of our priorities is to prevent and stop this kind of abuse.”

Anti-government protests have rocked Hong Kong since June, triggered by the now-shelved extradition bill, which would have allowed the transfer of criminal suspects to jurisdictions the city does not have an extradition agreement with, including mainland China.

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Protests have descended into chaos and unlawful assembly with many protesters resorting to violent acts, arson and road blockades and also using petrol bombs, ball bearings, bricks, lances, rods and other makeshift weapons to vandalise public facilities.

As of Tuesday, police had arrested more than 1,300 people and charged nearly 200 of them.

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