Community & Education HKFP Features HKFP Reports Hong Kong Law & Crime

As online spaces for sexual harassment proliferate, Hong Kong authorities struggle to keep up

“Her whole family should die.” “The fat [expletive] must think she’s fucking sexy.” “I wouldn’t pity her if she got raped by mainland Chinese people.”

It was this slew of messages on a Telegram group of 10,000 users sharing explicit images of women without their consent that led activist Emilia Wong to take action. 

“Street Shooting Valley @callginhk” had been operating on the messaging app for over a year, and had amassed a loyal following of voyeurs who posted over 100 new photos a day. Their name is a reference to the practice of taking surreptitious upskirt photos of women in the street and sharing them online. But their images also include leaked nudes and some, Wong thinks, of underage girls.

@callginhk screenshots Emilia Wong

@callginhk. Photo: Emilia Wong.

“Their values are really twisted,” she declared. “They treat women as extremely sexual objects. They think that a woman’s worth is solely invested in her sexuality and how appealing she is to men.”

Wong is an online activist who runs a “Gender blog,” where she publishes essays on bodily autonomy. After six months of quietly watching the Telegram group, she put up a series of damning screenshots on her platform, resulting in a media furore that triggered an intense debate over the legal protections afforded to victims of smartphone-related sex crimes. 

Under Section 161 of the Crimes Ordinance, a person who is convicted of “access to a computer with criminal or dishonest intent,” smartphones included, is liable to five years’ imprisonment. However, prosecutions have been put on hold until next year, after the High Court ruled last month that the law had been wrongly applied in the case of four primary school teachers who leaked entry exam questions using their camera phones

The delay was applauded by users of @callginhk, according to Amy (not her real name), who joined the group after being up-skirted in July: “I was on the MTR and a man tried to follow me, like a detective,” she explained. “He was obviously taking photos of me, because his phone was at his stomach or knee area, in quite a low position… I was frightened and thought he might have mental problems.”

Upskirt photo

Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Afterwards, Amy’s friend told her that the images might be on a rumoured group for voyeurs on Telegram – an app that had become popular in the community for its secure encryption. The group was looking to expand and had been inviting users to join freely. Amy got the name of the group from her friend, searched for it and joined; no admin approval was required“When I entered, there were so many members,” she said. “I was shocked and afraid because I thought Hong Kong was a safe space, but now I doubt its safety.”

A representative from women’s rights social media platform, The Asian Feminist, told HKFP that poor legal protection of women in the city leaves them vulnerable: “Hong Kong generally has lagged behind in tackling violence against women, from domestic violence to up-skirting. There is currently no law specifically to tackle up-skirting, and from what we read from media reports about the crime, the punishment tends to be light, like the 18-month probation given to a doctor who took up-skirting photos of hospital patients.” This referred to an anesthesiologist who avoided being struck off the general register in 2015 after he was caught taking upskirt photos. 

Those found taking indecent photos are currently prosecuted under a range of laws, including “Disorder in Public Places” and “Loitering.” A representative from the anti-sexual violence support group Rainlily told HKFP that these laws fail to criminalise the sexual nature of the offence, adding: “There are also different sentences for each offence, whereas the length of maximum imprisonment for each offence is not the same.”

‘They think they are heroes’

The @callginhk screenshots paint an unforgiving portrait of the users – narcissistic, entitled and crass. “What’s the big deal about taking pictures,” one blithely asked, while another, called Lok, proclaimed: “The ugly girls will say you’re a pervert, but the goddess-tier ones will curiously accept this.”

@callginhk screenshots Emilia Wong

@callginhk. Photo: Emilia Wong.

“They think they are heroes,” Wong told HKFP. “If a woman is not physically attractive to them, then she is basically worthless.” She said users will proclaim that it is a woman’s honour to have their pictures taken by them as it shows their appreciation of her. “They only treat them as pieces of meat,” she added. “It’s quite degrading.”

Wong herself is a bodily autonomy advocate, posting non-explicit nudes to a small group online: “I would post more revealing pictures and say that women have the right to wear what they want and still be respected,” she explained. 

But in a world of ubiquitous communication, word (or images) travels fast, and soon her pictures found their way to the Telegram group, where users lambasted her appearance: “Let’s all report the fat cunt’s posts,” user Thomas Chan urged, while another, Kit Hey, declared “There are probably thousands of people who hate the fat cunt.” One user on Facebook speculated that she was a part-time prostitute.

Wong brushed them off, explaining that it was her choice to post the photos online. But her activism has led to a torrent of online abuse, including death threats and emails to her teachers and employers. This hasn’t shaken her resolve. She said that she plans on setting up an online system to report abuse and offending users. “It’s like a balancing strategy, to make them feel like they are not as safe in those groups,” she said. 

The younger, the better

In an open group like @callginhk, users are often guided by a single, dangerous principle: the younger the girl, the better.

Mobile phone

Photo: Pixabay

Wong explained that users would boast about having sex with girls as young as 12 years old, and share nudes of them as proof: “I think it’s true because they have shared some pictures that look like the victim is underage.” She added that users would exchange the contact details of allegedly underage sex workers in Hong Kong or the mainland, as well as information on how to find them. They would also reportedly brag about finding underage part-time girlfriends through compensated dating – a term for sex work in Hong Kong.

Amy upheld Wong’s assertion, adding: “They post pictures of girls who look very young, and their bodies are not completely mature. I think it’s disgusting, it’s very horrible.”

Under the city’s Child Pornography Ordinance, those convicted face up to eight years’ imprisonment and a fine of HK$2,000,000. The legal age of consent in Hong Kong is 16.

Upskirting

Above all, @callginhk would share upskirt photos. Wong said that although the number of people taking upskirt photos is small, they have a large following of users in the group: “We do have people who take upskirt pictures, but it’s just a minority and it’s not a threat to the public. We don’t realise that there are a lot of people in these groups, although most of them are not perpetrators.”

105 people were arrested for cases involving the clandestine taking of indecent photos between January and June in Hong Kong, according to police.

Feet upskirting

Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Moreover, upskirting has become so prolific in the city that, for the past eight years, pro-Beijing party the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) has published an annual “upskirt black spots” list, designed to warn women of potential areas where they could be targeted.

The list has come under heavy fire for revealing prime upskirting locations to perpetrators, such as MTR stations and malls with glass escalator panels. But chairman of the DAB’s Women’s Affairs Committee Elizabeth Quat has defended the report as a preventive measure. She added that all acts of visual recording for sexual purposes without consent should be criminalised.

Dr. Oliver Chan, an Associate Professor of Criminology at City University of Hong Kong, told HKFP that sharing explicit images of women without their consent has been made easier by social media in recent years: “The behaviour to take upskirt photos seems to be a psychological urge for these individuals to satiate their deviant sexual desire.”

“To leak these explicit images could be yet another psychological need to show off their ‘talent’ in taking these photos without being arrested or alerted.”

A wider network

The Telegram group is only the tip of an iceberg of online sexual harassment in Hong Kong. Amy estimates that there are 80 to 100 similar groups active on the app, each containing 1,000 to 10,000 members. 

@callginhk screenshots Emilia Wong

@callginhk. Photo: Emilia Wong.

Wong explained that users of @callginhk would encourage each other to share more explicit photos; their reward would be prized access into smaller, exclusive groups with more revealing content. 

She also added that other online platforms would facilitate sexist dialogue. She flagged a popular online forum in Hong Kong, LIHKG, where she said users would call female travellers prostitutes: “They think that these girls have no work, so they are relying on someone else to get this luxurious kind of lifestyle,” she explained.

Easy technology

On Taobao (淘宝), a popular Alibaba-owned shopping website, spy cameras disguised as pens and car keys sell for as little as HK$160. There are no restrictions on who can buy them, making them an easy tool for upskirting offenders.

“In [@callginhk] they have discussed how to take these pictures better. They talk about the cameras that are hidden in glasses, in your specs, in zippers, in shoes,” Wong said. “They ask whether anyone has bought these cameras, and are these cameras useable.”

Taobao hidden camera

Photo: Taobao screenshot.

Wong said that some of the photos in the group might have been taken using hidden cameras: “From some of the pictures, you can see that the angle is really weird, as if there’s a camera in someone’s shoes, because it’s impossible for the angle to be that low if you’re holding a normal camera or your phone – so I think someone has bought it and is using it in Hong Kong now.”

Regulation

One issue facing authorities tackling online sexual harassment is the rapid turnover of groups like @callginhk. As soon as one is discovered, it’s quickly deleted and replaced by another under a different name. “Telegram is the most severe platform right now because of how safe the perpetrator feels,” Wong said.

The app relies on users to report illegal content that is publicly available on its “sticker sets” or animated picture-texts, channels and bots. But according to its privacy policy, it does not monitor group chats: “All Telegram chats and group chats are private amongst their participants. We do not process any requests related to them.”

Apple briefly removed Telegram from its App Store in February over its distribution of child pornography among users. Meanwhile, Prime Minister of the UK Theresa May singled out the app as a “home to criminals and terrorists” in January, leading to developers setting up a streamlined reporting system for flagging ISIS content.

Apps telegram

Photo: Microsiervo/Flickr.

Wong said that her efforts to report the group to police were swept aside: “I have contacted the police, but I think their actions are rather slow… only after these things were exposed to the media that they really did their follow-up. Before, they didn’t really reply [to] me.”

She added that after she spoke with a reporter, who asked the police for a comment, the police asked the reporter how to enter the Telegram groups: “I don’t think the police can really adjust to the fast-changing environment of social media and the internet era,” she said.

In a statement to HKFP, the police have said that they are investigating the incident: “The Police remind the public that the cyber world of the internet is not a virtual space beyond the law. Under the laws of Hong Kong, most of the ordinances stipulated in the real world may also apply for the cyber world.” Telegram has not responded to multiple requests for comment from HKFP.

@callginhk no longer operates as it did before – administrators have now banned nude content and upskirt photos. But users can still witness dozens of links to groups for pornography and prostitutes. With a wealth of other groups to browse from, there appears to be no clear end in sight.

As online spaces for sexual harassment proliferate, Hong Kong authorities struggle to keep up