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Views on the Review of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance

First published: 30th November 2009

Personal Submission by Allan G. Dyer


This submission addresses the review of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance (PDPO), and the consultation document published by the Hong Kong Government on 28th August 2009. The areas include the limited scope of the review, comments on most of the Proposals in the Consultation Document and further discussion on biometrics.

Copyright, Privacy, Obscenity and Free Speech

In January 2009, I made a submission1,2 to the Review of the Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance, saying, in part:

"It is clear that different people hold a wide range of views on what personal information (including images) they want to record and, optionally, make public, and the view might change according to the circumstances. Similarly, there are many views on public decency and obscenity, and the location can change the standards. In the current situation, laws intended for other purposes are sometimes used to try to address these emerging issues. In the early stages of the Edison Chen scandal, it was suggested that websites publishing the photos should be prosecuted under the COIAO, despite the fact that the images were of a similar nature to many erotic images on the internet. Should an obscenity law be used to protect privacy? Now, copyright law is being used against the perpetrators, but copyright was originally intended as a trade: creators get exclusive rights for a limited period and Society benefits from the creations when copyright expires and they pass into the public domain. Why should that be used for images that were intended solely for private enjoyment?"

The Edison scandal is over, but the issue remains, and reappears in other, less high-profile cases: cases that are essentially about Privacy are being forced into fitting other definitions (Copyright or Obscenity, in this case) because the PDPO is too weak on enforcement.

Copyright, Obscenity, Privacy and Free Speech are all related to the control of information and are interlinked in complex ways. The complexity cannot be addressed by a limited review of the PDPO, I quote again from my submissionibid. to the Review of the Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance:

"A new Review should be launched, with a scope that covers all the closely related areas: Telecommunications and the role of ISPs, Privacy, Copyright, and Obscene and Indecent articles."

Proposal No. 1: Sensitive Personal Data

Imposing more stringent regulation on personal data because it is "sensitive" implies that disclosure of some information is inherently more damaging than the disclosure of other information. This is untrue: a person attending a trade union meeting, or a Mass at a Catholic Cathedral, or drinking in a gay bar is displaying biometric information (their face) in a public place, and providing a strong indication of their membership of a trade union, or religious beliefs, or sexual life, yet the disclosure is (usually) harmless. It is how the information is (mis-)used that makes the difference. Conversely, home address is not listed in the examples of "sensitive personal data", but disclosure of it to a loan shark could be extremely damaging for the individual concerned.

It would also be wise to consider the implications of classifying biometric data as "sensitive" and probable future improvements in technology. Classifying racial origin, and health condition as "sensitive" necessarily makes genetic information "sensitive", because our genetic information records our racial origin, and our inherited diseases. In future, it might also be possible to predict a person's facial features or fingerprints from their genetic information. However, we all constantly shed genetic samples, most commonly in the form of dead skin and hair. House dust is mostly comprised of dead skin cells. The bag of a vacuum cleaner contains a record of the people who have been where it has cleaned and it might soon become feasible to extract that information. Will we require cleaners to follow strict data disposal protocols, or will we focus on how information is processed and used?

Biometric data, and how it can be disclosed, is considered further in section 15 .

The protection of personal data should not depend on whether it is included on a list of "sensitive" data because the potential damage depends too much upon circumstances, and because the more stringent controls will, inevitably make normal activities, such as cleaning, impossible.

Proposal No. 2: Regulation of Data Processors and Sub-contracting Activities

There appear to be, broadly, three categories of Data Processor that are affected:

  1. Commercial contractors and sub-contractors;
  2. Service providers that do not use the data themselves, including ISPs and search providers;
  3. Social networking sites and other internet-related businesses that process the same data for multiple users.

Of course, these are not rigidly-defined categories, and one organisation might fall into more than one category, depending on the circumstances.

For the first category, the Data Users and the Data Processors have (or should have) the technical expertise to understand the issues, and the power to negotiate the contract to comply with the law. In that case, the Data User should be required to use contractual or other measures to secure compliance; and the Data Processors should be directly regulated in their obligations.

For the second and third categories, the Data Users (individuals and SMEs) do not have the power or technical expertise to negotiate with the Data Processors – at best, there will be a "take-it-or-leave-it" End User Agreement. My submission on the Review of the COIACibid., section 3.1 included a discussion of an overly-restrictive ISP End User Agreement, if the same restrictions on Data Processors, intended for Contractors were applied to ISPs, then, no doubt, ISPs would find it necessary to protect their interests with even more restrictive End User Agreements.

The law should regulate limitations on the agreement so that Data Users are not faced with either blindly accepting impossible conditions, or being excluded from the Information Society.

So, for the second category, ISPs and search providers, a balance can be achieved by exempting them from most PDPO provisions, but not from ensuring the same level of security that the data had (if a website publishes private information to the world, it is not reasonable to prosecute a search engine for indexing it), while restricting their End User Agreements.

For the third category, social networking sites, it is a lot more complicated because the Data Users include not just multiple individuals and the site provider, but also third-party application (often game) developers, that may request and require users to allow access to their profile before they can play the game. The biggest issue here is that there is a lack of transparency about who is getting access to which data. The Data Protection Principles, particularly DPP1, DPP3 and DPP5, address this issue already, but social networking sites are often based outside of Hong Kong, and there have been no legal cases covering this area in Hong Kong so there is no guidance on best practice for those involved. This could be improved by:

  1. Giving the Privacy Commissioner the power and resources to start an investigation without having received a specific complaint.
  2. The Privacy Commissioner preparing Guidelines for Social Networking sites, and, in the future, whatever new types of internet-based businesses that appear.

Proposal No. 3: Personal Data Security Breach Notification

A voluntary privacy breach notification system is worthless – the worst offenders will not volunteer so the additional costs caused will be a burden only on responsible organisations. Responsible organisations will therefore be less competitive in the Free Market, and irresponsible organisations will succeed, the exact opposite of what is desired. Therefore, there should be a mandatory breach notification system.

Proposal No. 4: Granting Criminal Investigation and Prosecution Power to the PCPD

There appears to be insufficient reason to concentrate the additional power of prosecution in the Privacy Commissioner.

Proposal No. 5: Legal Assistance to Data Subjects under Section 66

The power to provide legal assistance would greatly enhance the effectiveness of the PDPO.

Proposal No. 6: Award Compensation to aggrieved Data Subjects

While deciding on and awarding compensation may be best left to the courts to decide, it should be noted that the process of noticing, researching, reporting and following up on a possible breach of the PDPO can be time-consuming for a Data Subject. For example, in Case No. 2002141223 a Data Subject noticed a potential security flaw on a website, tested that it actually existed, and reported it to the Privacy Commissioner. After investigation, the Commissioner required the website owner to improve the security and asked the Data Subject whether the changes made were sufficient. The Data Subject identified new flaws and reported them but also expressed the view that it is not his intention to do unpaid security consultancy for the website owner.

Notwithstanding any claim for compensation, it would be appropriate, when an Enforcement Notice is issued, for the Privacy Commissioner to require the culprit to recompense the reporter a reasonable fee for the service of reporting the breach of the PDPO.

Proposal No. 7: Making Contravention of a Data Protection Principle an Offence

The biggest weakness in the PDPO currently is the Enforcement Notice system whereby personal data can be negligently or maliciously disclosed, with potential of actual damage to the Data Subject(s), and the Privacy Commissioner is essentially limited to saying, "Naughty, naughty; don't do it again"!

Disclosure of information is non-reversible, once published, it cannot be "un-disclosed" and the damage caused cannot be undone. The Edison Chen case illustrates this dramatically: the culprit who copied the files without permission has been sentenced4 yet the pictures are still locatable on the internet, and the subjects' careers are still in tatters. In addition, maybe Edison was negligent in storing such sensitive information with insufficient protection.

The Enforcement Notice system may work adequately in allowing the Privacy Commissioner to review the handling of personal data in responsible organisations, and recommend improvements in-line with the DPPs, for example, when the Privacy Commissioner ordered a school to stop fingerprinting children5. However, it ceases to be effective as soon as negligence or malicious intent are involved. In particular, when there has been an actual data leak, with potential or actual damage to the Data Subjects, there should be penalties to act as an effective deterrent.

Over the past couple of years, there have been a string of data leak incidents: from an IPCC contractor6, from Hospitals, the Immigration Department, and HSBC, but no penalties for the negligent organisations and staff. This sends a clear message: don't bother about protecting personal data until you receive an enforcement notice.

Proposal No. 8: Unauthorised Obtaining, Disclosure and Sale of Personal Data

Breach of DPP3 is one of those areas where, as discussed above, in Section 9 , the Enforcement Notice system is inadequate, and it should therefore be an offence. The defence provisions used in the UK appear reasonable.

However, it should be noted that "identity theft" is, in general, an offence enabled by the negligence of Data Users that inappropriately use personal data for the purpose of authentication. It would not matter that a criminal could discover your mother's maiden name or the name of your first pet if you bank did not use that information for their "security questions". Disclosure of other biometric data is discussed in section 15.

The Privacy Commissioner should make it clear that inappropriate use of personal information for authentication contravenes DPP1 ("Only personal data that are necessary for or directly related to the purpose should be collected") and DPP4 (security of personal data), and should issue Enforcement Notices to organisations, particularly banks and financial institutions (where the potential loss is greatest) that are negligent about this.

Proposal No. 9: Repeated Contravention of a Data Protection Principle on Same Facts

From a casual reading of the Privacy Commissioner's website, and other documents, it is not clear that this loophole exists. However, if it does, it is a serious flaw that should be fixed as soon as possible. The fact that no cases have occurred is irrelevant: a Data User that did this would be flouting the intent of the law with clear premeditation and there must be a strong motive for the action. The penalty level should be the same as simple non-compliance.

Proposal No. 10

No comment.

Proposal No. 11: Repeated Non-compliance with Enforcement Notice

A repeated offence should attract a heavier penalty.

Proposal No. 12: Raising Penalty for Misuse of Personal Data in Direct Marketing

Before raising the maximum penalty, it should be considered whether making the penalty proportional to the number of Data Subjects that were victims would be effective. Thus, if a direct marketer misused an address list of 10,000 people, the magistrate could impose a fine of up to $10,000 for each person affected, which is 10,000 x 10,000 = $100,000,000 in total. If the base penalty is commensurate with the damage to the individual victim, then the total penalty will be commensurate with the damage to Society. Organisations that hold, and (mis-)use, data on individuals should realise that their responsibility grows with the number of individuals.

Biometric Data and Authentication

We all constantly disclose our biometric data in numerous ways – genetic information in dust has already been mentioned in section 3, we disclose our face simply by walking down the street, and leave our fingerprints on each door handle and handrail we touch. More permanently, in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University there is a wall featuring the handprints of distinguished donors where the fingerprints are clearly discernable, and quite possibly recoverable. Should the wall be demolished, and we all be required, by law, to wear masks and gloves in public?

The problem is not in the disclosure of the information, but in the processing and use of it. Biometrics is frequently seen as the panacea for authentication problems when, in reality, it provides a (at best) unique identifier, not an authenticator. It is only under carefully-controlled conditions, such as in the Immigration halls at our borders, that the connection between identity and authorisation can be reliably made.


The current PDPO restricts the Privacy Commissioner to being ineffective. No matter the severity of the case, he or she can only issue an enforcement notice in the first instance. The current situation means that there is little incentive for organisations to improve their handling of personal data, before an incident occurs. We have therefore seen a continued series of headline-grabbing incidents.

The implications of Social Networking and similar internet-based applications with numerous data users are a concern and should be considered in detail.

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