my next research project: personal data protection in hong kong

Have you ever wondered what others know about you? We live in an era where everything that we do, including who we call, for how long and at what times, what websites we visit and how often, all can be recorded in minute detail. This can be a scary thought: information is power and money, as companies can share your information with law enforcement or sell it to other companies, oftentimes without your consent.

Am I being overly concerned? Well, remember what happened in 2010 in Hong Kong? Initially denying accusations that they had sold people’s personal information without their consent, Octopus ended up confessing that, yes, they had sold away personal information of their users, making a not insignificant profit of HKD44m, which was about 31% of its total revenue. Octopus is the company famous for pioneering the smart card that everyone in Hong Kong has and uses to conveniently pay for a wide range of things, from public transportation, to candy bars, to electricity bills, with just one simple tap of the card. The personal information Octopus sold included partial identity card numbers; partial date of birth, including year and month; mailing address without block and floor details; occupation; gender; range of salary; and spending on a reward scheme. Upset and angry that Octopus was collecting, processing and even selling their personal information, users demanded to know why this could happen at all, and whether anything could be done about it. This incident ultimately led to the strengthening of data protection law in Hong Kong, which was already known for being the first jurisdiction in Asia to have a dedicated personal data protection law.

A strong law that guarantees the protection of personal information in Hong Kong: that’s great. But is it working? That’s not so clear: there was a record high number of complaints in 2015, with 40% of the complaints “related to the use of personal data without the consent of data subjects”. Perhaps not surprising, a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center revealed how people are increasingly feeling a sense of resignation and fatalism when it comes to privacy: more than half do not want to lose control over their information but also feel that this already happened and that they cannot do anything about it. But people still care about privacy: another study by Pew revealed that 93% of adults say that being in control of who can get information about them is important; while 90% say that controlling what information is collected about them is important.

I study internet freedom. I believe being able to protect your privacy is critical not only because privacy is a human right, but also because privacy helps free expression: if you feel you are being watched, you will self-censor yourself. It’s why I am working on a research project, to understand the collection, processing and sharing of personal information here in Hong Kong; a research project that is in collaboration with InMedia Hong Kong and the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. If you’re interested, keep your eye on this space: there will be more to come.