Privacy laws need some real bite

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 2:44am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 8:06am

Collecting blood samples for DNA tests; tracking down the culprit using fingerprints - these are not just the procedures of a serious criminal probe. They are some of the questionable steps taken by Hong Kong employers to monitor their staff. The privacy commissioner has rightly intervened following complaints. In the case of DNA tests, it came after the female washroom at an investment company was found to be fouled with stains that were believed to be menstrual blood. All female employees were then required to give blood samples to help track down the person responsible. In another case, a furniture company came up with an unusual way to check attendance - fingerprinting its 400 workers to deter them from punching time-cards for one another.

The two incidents may seem absurd. While the firms in the these cases have obviously gone overboard, it highlights the low level of privacy awareness among management. As the privacy chief said, fingerprints and DNA are sensitive personal data. The employers have abused their authority to mandate staff compliance with privacy-invasive practices.

Insufficient awareness is also reflected in the prevalence of unidentified job recruitment ads. Job consultants argue that companies may not want to disclose recruitment for certain commercially sensitive ventures. This may be a valid concern from a business point of view. But "blind ads" not just enable the collection of excessive personal information from those who may or may not be hired; the ads may also be abused for gathering data for direct marketing or even fraud. The 550 inquiries received by the commission over the past five years underline the need to step up education and enforcement.

The privacy law has been in place for two decades. But it is regrettable that many bosses are still ignorant of how far they can go. The watchdog still has a lot to do in terms of public education and enforcement. Companies and the advertising media can also help by paying more attention to the law.