Private data sale allegations set alarm bells ringing in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 November, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong resident Emily Ho Hing-shan has been using QQ's instant messaging software for several years to chat to friends on the mainland. She was alarmed by allegations that QQ has been selling customers' private data.

'If what 360 said was true, it's scary to think how long my personal data has been under possible surveillance,' said the 24-year-old teacher. 'If QQ has sold users' information to other companies, like our Octopus did, it would be outrageous.

'Given how the mainland authorities like to know and control what people say, I cringe to think our data has been used politically.'

She said she would start using alternative software such as Microsoft MSN, or the telephone, to talk to her mainland friends, unless QQ was the only available option. 'MSN is not widely used on the mainland, and QQ seems the only electronic way to contact them,' she said. 'I will probably use the telephone when the call is sensitive and very personal.'

Another user, Melody Chan Man-yi, 25, an advertising executive, said she would start putting in false information, not only to disguise herself but to fool companies about her.

'It isn't new that companies sell personal information for profit so I understand why they do it; I wonder if it is even written in the fine print.'

Charles Mok, chairman of the Hong Kong Internet Society, said the incident exposed a lack of awareness of privacy and consumers' rights among mainland program developers and officials.

'In many other countries, such actions would have caused a much bigger storm, as they appear to have violated laws on privacy and consumers' rights.

'If Microsoft had been found to do the same, they would be sued to death. But on the mainland, apparently not.'

Mok cited the example of Facebook in Canada.

Last year, Canada's commissioner for privacy identified several areas where Facebook needed to improve to bring its practices in line with Canadian privacy law.

'Some mainland authority may come out and say 'nothing to be worried about, and everything the companies did was lawful', but few would believe it now,' he said.

So how can users be safe?

'The best way is not to use it at all,' Mok said. 'But there are few similar products on the mainland because QQ is what most mainlanders use, and you wouldn't be able to find your friend if you switched to new software.'

Information technology-sector legislator Samson Tam Wai-ho said the incident showed that some mainland companies would go to great lengths to foil competitors' plans.

'Hong Kong users can only passively wait for a mainland authority, perhaps the courts, to control the companies,' he said, adding that the Hong Kong government also had the duty to advise Hongkongers to be cautious.