Balancing privacy with public's right to know

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2008, 12:00am

People's right to privacy and the public's right to know are not necessarily incompatible, but they often coexist in a precarious balance. Fierce competition compels some news organisations to pursue cutting-edge exposes that clearly serve the public interest. But it can also lead to unethical practices and sensational reporting.

The scandal over the celebrities' nude photos, which were leaked on the internet, has once again reopened an old debate about the need for a robust privacy law. In a recent article, Law Society president Lester Huang has revived proposals tabled by the Law Reform Commission in 2004 for such a law. Meanwhile, Privacy Commissioner Roderick Woo Bun has recommended giving more teeth to the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance. Disclosure in the past two weeks that the departments of Immigration and Health, the Hospital Authority and banking giant HSBC have all lost confidential personal data has surely strengthened Mr Woo's case.

But the commissioner has gone further in his call for a privacy law, which involves personal rights and freedoms, not simply data protection. He is right to point out that the sex photo scandal has exposed gaps in current laws when it comes to protecting people's privacy. An advanced society built on the free flow of information and information technology must re-examine these issues from time to time. Legal reviews by the relevant authorities are welcome. Mr Woo has made recommendations to the government which deserve a timely response.

But we must be especially careful about any legislative proposals that may unduly infringe or restrict freedom of expression and the free flow of information.

Such a law could easily be used and abused to hide information that may be very much in the public interest to disclose. There is clearly a need for people to develop greater awareness and respect for personal data and privacy protection. But introducing a new law must be approached with caution, as it could well disturb the delicate balance and compromise other rights and freedoms our society clearly cherishes.