Personal-data sales develop into a terrifying plague

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 August, 2010, 12:00am

As Hong Kong was up in arms last week over privacy concerns relating to the sale of Octopus cardholders' personal data, a court in Shanghai's Pudong district was making a landmark ruling over the sale of personal information.

On Thursday, the court sentenced nine people to jail terms of six months with a six-month reprieve to two years for selling 30 million items of personal data involving car owners, bank customers, policy-holders, and high-income businesspeople in Beijing and Changsha, Hunan .

This may be the biggest mainland case since the Criminal Law was amended in February last year to make the selling of personal data illegal. But the case did not make the headlines of either the state media or the more popular internet news portals.

This is too bad. Mainland authorities should have used the case as part of a media campaign to highlight the importance of privacy protection and to push for detailed laws and regulations in the area. Compared to dealing with floods and pollution, many officials may consider privacy a low priority, and some may see violations as non-issues.

But they are wrong. In this age of the internet and rapid advances in telecommunications, few things are more important than privacy protection, particularly as mainlanders become richer and the proud owners of apartments, cars and credit cards.

It's hard to find anyone on the mainland with a mobile phone these days who has not received numerous unsolicited phone calls or text messages from people trying to flog apartments, insurance policies, fake invoices, massages and so on. Some may be just nuisance cold sales calls, but others are truly frightening because the callers or senders appear to know very personal family details, such as names, jobs and addresses.

The truth is that any personal details put on a sales contract or a bank form can become commodities that are sold and resold many times.

According to research released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in March last year, an investigation in four cities including Beijing and Chengdu , Sichuan revealed that the abuse and illegal use of personal data had reached a 'shocking' level. The sale of personal data involving property owners, stock investors, businesspeople, car owners, telecom service users, and even hospital patients has become a nationwide industry.

Telephone scams have become so rampant across the mainland that the state media are full of reports of criminals using accurate personal data to fleece gullible housewives or retirees of their life's savings.

Since last year, the Ministry of Public Security has launched national campaigns to crack down on the scams, leading to numerous arrests, but there have been few reports about the police undertaking any serious attempt to pursue the source of the data.

My own experiences in this regard - or sufferings, to be more precise - show the tentacles of this industry and their terrifying impact. Ever since I bought an apartment in Beijing two years ago, I have received numerous calls daily from real estate agents wondering if I want to sell or rent. As if on cue, many more people started to call - more than a dozen daily - as soon as I undertook interior decorating one year ago. All of them appeared to know my name and where I lived. It is interesting to note that some called much earlier than others, indicating the information had been sold many times.

A more terrifying experience came not long ago when my wife received a text message on her mobile phone, clearly listing her name and our apartment number, and asking her to hand over 20,000 yuan (HK$22,900) or face unpleasant consequences.

A call to the police revealed that several hundred people who lived in the same complex received the same message. One police officer lamented that because such scams were so widespread, there was little hope of arresting the culprit(s), let alone finding out where the personal data came from.

So, where do those people get all that information? Probably from banks, stockbrokers, car dealers, phone companies and, yes, property agents. They sell your data for a fee or share it with one another. The more enterprising criminals, such as those involved in the case mentioned at the beginning, place recruitment ads on the internet and sell the r?sum?s for 10 cents to 50 cents apiece.

Last month, two auxiliary police officers in Sichuan and Zhejiang were jailed for illegally downloading the personal details of 1.5 million car owners from - of all places - the police's internal network and selling them. That case didn't make the headlines, either.