Google reports surge in data requests from Hong Kong police

Privacy watchdog urged to investigate growing trend as inquiries from HK law enforcers to search engine giant almost double those in Japan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2012, 7:23am

The privacy watchdog has been urged to look into a rising trend in requests by Hong Kong law enforcers for Google users' data after the internet search giant disclosed the number was almost double that in Japan.

The internet giant said yesterday that in the first half of this year it had received 192 requests for data to use in investigations compared to 325 in all of last year and 140 in 2010.

While it said it had complied with only about a third, the increase prompted Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun to call for a probe by the privacy commissioner into possible "abnormal surveillance".

In the same period, Japan law enforcers made 104 requests, and Russia's made 58. Globally, Google, which is blocked in mainland China, received 20,938 requests, up 25 per cent year on year.

"The number of requests that we receive for user account information as part of criminal investigations has increased year on year," Google said in its transparency report yesterday. "We hope this will shine some light on the appropriate scope and authority of government requests to obtain user data around the globe," it said, attributing the rise to more people using its services.

The report came amid a surge in technology-related crime. Police recorded 2,100 such cases in the first nine months, almost the same as last year's figure at 2,206 but well above the 1,643 in 2010.

A senior police officer said it was reasonable to state that police made more requests to website operators for information as the number of such crimes rose.

But To said: "There are more than a 100 million people in Japan. And historically Japan is helping the United States to monitor terrorists. There is no reason why Hong Kong should have more requests than Japan."

He said the privacy commissioner should look into the rise.

Data obtained for preventing, preclusion or remedying unlawful or serious improper conduct was exempted from Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, which requires consent of the person whose details are being sought before these are collected.

To said the exemption should be reviewed.

A spokesman for the office of the privacy commissioner said it had also received more complaints on data access requests and had issued guidance on the procedures.

The report also revealed that a request had been received from a provincial land bureau in the mainland to remove a search result linking to a site that allegedly defamed a government official, but Google did not comply.

It also received a request from Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department to remove 377 YouTube videos for containing allegedly copyright-infringing material. Google did not respond to the request because the notice was incomplete.