HONG KONG — The Hong Kong police raided the office of an independent polling institute on Friday, on the eve of a primary vote for the city’s pro-democracy camp, raising concerns of official interference in a campaign for the local legislature.
The police action followed Beijing’s imposition of a sweeping security law in the city, which has heightened fears that Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese city, was at risk of losing many of its cherished freedoms and civil liberties.
The polling organization, the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, planned to work with the pro-democracy camp’s primary on Saturday and Sunday, a vote that is intended to help determine candidates for a Legislative Council election in September.
The police said that officers belonging to the Cyber Security and Technology Crime unit searched an office in the Wong Chuk Hang neighborhood on Friday afternoon on the suspicion that computers at the institute had been hacked, leading to a leak of personal information.
“The police received reports in recent days and suspect that the information of some residents, including police officers, is being leaked,” the police said in a statement. “It may be related to the relevant organization’s computer systems being attacked by unlawful means.”
The statement added that no arrests were made in the operation.
The institute’s directors said that police officers with a search warrant had entered offices around 6:30 p.m. and threatened to seize all of its electronic devices, including laptops containing polling data and the personal information of survey respondents, after receiving speculative reports of data breaches.
“From my understanding, the police don’t rule out that we are deliberately disclosing some information in their investigations,” Robert Chung, the institute’s director told reporters.
Dr. Chung said that the institute has been subject to sophisticated, state-level hacking attempts near election cycles since its voter records were digitized in 2012, and had proactively contacted law enforcement in previous years. But he said he worried whether the privacy of respondents and voters could be maintained under such police scrutiny.
After a standoff that lasted past midnight, the officers agreed not to take away the devices, but to copy records they deemed suspicious.
“No matter what, we would not allow them to take our computers,” said Chung Kim-wah, the institute’s deputy director, adding that the primary could not be held without them.
“We fervently hope that the police will not copy data that touches upon personal information, though we cannot guarantee” he said, adding that pro bono lawyers would be on hand to observe the police copying the computer’s logs and files.
An online user had boasted in chat groups last week that he had hacked into the institute’s records and obtained the personal data of police officers, records Chung Kim-wah said no longer existed in the institute’s computer systems.
Au Nok-hin, a former pro-democracy lawmaker who was helping organize the primaries, said on Twitter that the raid was “very likely related to the primary vote, to create a threatening effect.”
The institute’s practice is to store data, including the phone numbers of respondents, for half a year, as researchers analyze surveys.
Hours before the raid, the independent polling institute released results to the question, “Is Hong Kong still a free city?” Among the respondents, 61 percent said that it no longer was, while 32 percent said that it was, according to results released Friday afternoon.
The Hong Kong government has been sharply critical of the pro-democracy camp’s primary. Erick Tsang, the secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, told The Oriental Daily News, a pro-Beijing newspaper, in an interview published Thursday, that the authorities were investigating complaints that the primary might violate electoral law and the new national security law.
The government has also warned district council members against using their offices to hold primary votes. Opposition district council candidates won a sweeping victory in November, a sign that the demands of a monthslong pro-democracy protest movement resonated with voters. The opposition camp has said it hopes to capture at least half the legislature’s 70 seats in September, but has acknowledged that its candidates could face widespread disqualifications before the vote.
Benny Tai, a law professor who also helped organize the primary, wrote on Facebook that residents should resist intimidation efforts by voting.
“One should not be intimidated or withdraw, but insist on living in reality,” wrote Mr. Tai, who was imprisoned over his role as a leader pro-democracy protests known as the Umbrella Movement in 2014.
“As long as there are many people who persist in using their votes to reject lies, we can still see flickers of light in dark times and sustain the spirit of resistance,” he added.