Internet surveillance needs to strike a balance

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 November, 2012, 3:03am


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Governments around the world appear be nosing deeper into what their citizens do on the internet these days. According to the latest report by Google, their demands for data on private accounts have increased, up from 18,257 in the second half of last year to 20,938 in the first six months of this year. Although most of the requests are related to criminal investigations, it does little to dispel fears of a growing trend in online surveillance. The lack of transparency has made it difficult to judge whether the requests are justified.

Hong Kong law enforcers also seem to have a growing appetite for personal information held by the internet giant. Their number of requests rose from 140 in 2010 to 325 last year. The figure for first six months this year reached 192, 56 per cent more than that in the same period last year. Globally, we rank 13th among the 31 places listed in the report.

Computer crime knows no boundaries. Criminals exploiting the internet is an irreversible trend that can be tackled only by modernising the law and by imposing tougher enforcement. The increase in requests for personal data by our government, is, therefore, not necessarily alarming. The trend seems to echo the rise in technology-crime cases recorded by the police, up from 1,643 in 2010 to 2,100 in the first three quarters of this year.

While law enforcers cannot be expected to justify each request openly, internet users have the right to know what sort of personal data may be given away. We are told that only one third of the requests has been fully or partially met. Without more details, people are not in the position to tell whether law enforcers have asked more than necessary or whether the internet company has been uncooperative.

Article 30 of the Basic Law says no authority may infringe on the freedom and privacy of communication except for public security or criminal investigation. But that does not mean the government can abuse power to break into internet servers and scout for evidence without limits. Any interference with such rights and freedoms should be proportionate to the purpose of the action. The ordinance to regulate covert surveillance for law enforcement is enacted with such spirit.

Protection of personal data and law enforcement are equally important. The Google report provides a good basis for an open debate on how to strike the right balance. It will also be good for the privacy commissioner to look into the matter and see if there is any room for improvement.