App should not exploit disclosure of personal information

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 August, 2013, 1:31am

I wish to respond to the negative comments published in the South China Morning Post (August 15) subsequent to the release of my report on the investigation into a smartphone application which enabled subscribers to search litigation and bankruptcy records of target individuals by their names.

These records are made publicly available by government authorities for specific purposes.

In my firm view, these purposes do not include supporting a commercial venture to assist general consumers to probe into people's litigation and bankruptcy history, if any, for making decisions on employability and creditworthiness.

In practice, while public records enable the identification of individuals involved in litigation and bankruptcy cases, they do not (contrary to the commentators' belief) facilitate record searching by name.

Through value-added aggregation and processing of personal data, the app has in effect created a new purpose of use of the data in the public domain, which is not allowed under the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.

Innovative use of public domain data could generate economic efficiency and societal benefits.

This could be legal, as in the case of a web search engine which acts purely as an intermediary in providing content data, or illegal, as in the app.

Exemptions also apply for law enforcement, professional due diligence and the publishing of data as news in the public interest. Each case will have to be determined on its merits.

Importantly, the app's database is invalid and inaccurate.

First, while bankruptcy records are identifiable by partial identification numbers, litigation records are not and it would be misleading to ascribe them to an individual whose name is not unique.

Further, a litigant could be innocent, but the database does not invariably include the court's judgment.

Finally, bankruptcy is discharged after four to eight years and the Rehabilitation of Offenders Ordinance prevents unauthorised disclosure of a minor conviction provided the offender is not reconvicted in the subsequent three years.

Therefore, the indefinite retention and use of the bankruptcy data would unduly stigmatise an individual and bar him from leading a life free from encumbrances.

Hence using the database to check out an individual behind his back is grossly unfair and intrusive.

Readers interested in the subject may access our website to review the investigation report and our Guidance on Use of Personal Data obtained from the Public Domain.

Allan Chiang, privacy commissioner for personal data