National Education

Doubts cast on bureau's privacy policy over national education

Personal data watchdog says details of responses to public consultation on national education would not breach law if no person was identified

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 September, 2012, 9:19am

The Education Bureau's citing of privacy concerns to withhold details of the public consultation on national education was called into question yesterday after the privacy watchdog said consultation responses fell outside the law protecting personal data.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data said yesterday that publication of responses would intrude on privacy only when a person could be identified from them.

The bureau, meanwhile, continued to insist it could not release details of the consultation on the hotly-opposed school subject because of objections from some who had made submissions that they could face unnecessary stereotyping due to their stance if identified.

But legislator Ronny Tong Ka-wah accused the government of using an irrelevant argument to withhold the release of the findings. "Comments are not personal data," he said, adding that privacy laws would not prohibit the government from releasing information from which a person's identity could not be identified. "They are just making up arguments so that they can withhold the findings. It will only create an impression that the findings are not in favour of them," he said

In response to a South China Morning Post inquiry, a spokeswoman for the privacy office said that if it was not practicable for anyone to identify a person from information, "such information would not be regarded as personal data pursuant to the [Personal Data (Privacy)] Ordinance".

"Hence … the privacy issue concerned will fall outside our jurisdiction and there is no issue of contravention under the ordinance," she said.

The Education Bureau has been accused of withholding the details because they were unfavourable to its policy of introducing mandatory national education, which has since been shelved in the face of huge protests, with schools being given the choice of whether to teach it.

The bureau source said authorities had no intention of hiding the facts and would soon make available some submissions, and other data, where no privacy issues had been raised.

Meanwhile, a count by the Post of 87 written submissions collated for two Legislative Council public hearings, conducted in June and July last year, found that there were more who objected or expressed reservations about the policy than who supported it.

While 35 submissions clearly favoured national education, 32 opposed it as an independent subject. Another five submissions said schools should decide on their own, while nine submissions expressed other reservations such as the short time frame for the introduction and teachers' workload. Six submissions didn't indicate a clear stance.

The government is also citing privacy in its refusal to release details of the consultation over the redevelopment of the former central government offices.

Katty Law, convenor of Central & Western Concern Group, said the Antiquities and Monuments Office had told her it could not release the findings of the consultation on the proposed gradings of the three office blocks due to privacy issues.

Law said the authorities would jeopardise credibility of public consultations if officials "hide behind privacy" at the expense of public interest.