Care is the key word on data protection
The revelation that various companies in a number of industries have been sharing and selling personal data might well lead the government to propose making such unauthorised activities an offence. It is reviewing the law.
However, care must be taken when legislating in response to a public outcry, especially where civil rights are concerned. The danger is that reforms become piecemeal, and affect the protection of other rights. If the government is serious about protecting individuals, then it should use this opportunity to clarify all the regulations regarding the handling of data and information. That means ensuring the protection of privacy is complemented by supporting the public's right to know.
Too often, the government and other public bodies have shied away from their duty to disclose information in the public interest by citing dubious privacy concerns, even when a formal application is made under the Code on Access to Information. When the Hong Kong Monetary Authority revealed six banks had been selling personal data, it refused to disclose the identity of the banks, citing banking provisions. Any reform of privacy laws should consider the experience overseas. In Britain, for example, the Data Protection Act was part of a comprehensive review of privacy laws, and the public's right to know. It was followed by the Freedom of Information Act a year later. An Information Commissioner's Office enforces both laws, and its motto illustrates how the privacy of the individual is supported, not counter-balanced, by the public right to know: 'To uphold information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals.'
As the body in charge of both areas, the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau is in the perfect position to conduct an holistic review of all the information laws and to consider setting up a commission similar to the one in Britain. If enforcement of privacy rights is strengthened at the expense of the right to know, the government will have made little progress in protecting citizens' rights.