• Thu
  • Dec 18, 2014
  • Updated: 1:50pm
NewsHong Kong

Privacy commissioner is Luddite, says activist after Do No Evil app shutdown

Corporate crusader says the Do No Evil app was only providing what is already public and 'Luddite' commissioner should be replaced

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 9:02am

A prominent corporate governance activist has lashed out at the privacy watchdog for failing to acknowledge the need for easier access to information.

And David Webb says its commissioner, Allan Chiang Yam-wang, should be "replaced with someone who understands modern technology" better.

"Frankly, I think Mr Chiang is a technophobic Luddite and needs to be replaced by someone who won't keep attacking services that provide public access to data that is already public," said Webb.

He was responding to a move by the privacy watchdog to bar a company from supplying data on individuals - gleaned from publicly available litigation and bankruptcy records - via a smartphone application.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data yesterday said it had ordered the operator of mobile app Do No Evil to cease supplying "sensitive" data after it was found to have invaded personal data privacy by allowing users to search for individuals by name.

Webb said the watchdog's report contained several inconsistencies. "[Chiang's] position is inconsistent. He says it is OK for corporate services to do it for other corporations, but it is not OK for a business to provide this service to a consumer … tenants and landlords may want to look up whether either have been sued in the past and small businesses may want to conduct due diligence," Webb said.

"But any information that has gone through the courts is in the public domain so I don't see why they're forcing people to go down the corporate route."

Webb criticised the report's premise that people with similar names could be mistaken during a search, saying unique identifiers such as partial identification numbers, which are also public, would help to avoid mix-ups.

"The commissioner should explain why a company can provide [background search] services through web platforms and not mobile apps," he said.

Webb was forced by the watchdog earlier this year to withdraw a short-lived database listing the identity card numbers of 1,100 company directors including tycoons Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong and Li Ka-shing.

In both cases, the watchdog argues that misuse of personal data from public registries that is not directly related to the original purpose could constitute a breach of the privacy law.

Webb's push for the free flow of information was echoed by Alex Kong, of IT company Sino Dynamic Solutions, which developed the Do No Evil app. "We call the app Do No Evil to convey this message: easy public access to criminal records would help deter crime," he said.

The company argues that the data, which is all obtained from public records provided by the government, is for employers to conduct background searches and due diligence on potential employees. Kong gave the example of schools being required to check whether teachers had committed sex crimes.

A team of nine people had worked on the app for 18 months, he said. "A company once offered to buy the rights to the app for HK$600,000, but we refused the offer due to the long-term potential of the app. Now everything has been in vain," Kong said.

The firm has also scrapped plans to develop apps facilitating company and land searches.

The right of individuals to privacy is not absolute, the privacy commissioner said on Tuesday. It must be balanced against other rights and the public interest, he said. Exemptions from the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance include the use of personal data to prevent or detect crime or dishonesty, and for reporting purposes where information published is in the public interest.

He said the Do No Evil app "seriously invaded" privacy and the exemptions did not apply.



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This article is now closed to comments

Chiang used to run the post office for chrissakes. For him, new technology is a self-adhesive stamp. Get rid of the ignorant choge and take away his pension.
John Adams
I fully agree.
Also read Alex Lo's "My Take" today. Mr Lo also agrees with David Webb.
If Mr Allan Chiang Yam-wang is logical ( and has even the slightest knowledge about how the internet works) he should ban Google and all the other search engines.
These days when I want to find out anything in the public domain I type in a few key words into Google . I don't even bother to wade through the HK Govt's enormous website to look for the right department ( e.g bankruptcy ! ) - Google does it for me.
I am not sure whether I am right. If someone wants to check the bankruptcy or associated details of a particular person he can go to the Official Receiver's Office and pay a fee to do that. The 'Do No Evil' App simply facilitates this action and saves you time and money. So what is the difference ?
Dai Muff
Take the commissioner to court. This material is in the public domain, so privacy is not an issue.
I sympathise with Webb and Kong: the Privacy Commissioner has yet again over stepped his mark when interpreting the spirit and intent of the PDPO. It is perhaps time to challenge the Commissioner's rulings in court.
Absolutely Crustasian, the man is an idiot.
Private firms create apps for access to public data where Government or associated organisations fail to provide quality access services to public data themselves. How many departments still ask you to physically go to a secretariat to check out plans or records which are available in digital form? Give it to them Webb. Cars replaced horse carriages, planes replaced boats, ... what is wrong with these people?
Unlike David Webb who are civilized, we are talking about Hong Kong, a 99% Chinese society. In Chinese DNA, they have a crave to pry into other people's past and spread gossip about it even if that is none of their business. The intention of providing easier access is good, but Chinese has a bad habit of using your past as a means of attacking people they simply disliked - and that person can just be a co-worker he/she disliked. The correct approach to prevent misuse is to license the usage to specific groups such as property agencies, registered businesses etc. not individuals.
The "Do No Evil" apps was first reported in an ex-pat magezine. The issue here is not about need for easier access to information, it is how those information is being accessed by people with no need or legitimate jusitifcation. There are people who use the apps to simply find out all about an individual. For example a member of staff disliked a co-worker, he/she can use the application to dig out all kinds of pass history of the person and if the person happens to have a court incident or similar, the information will be used as character murder in a workplace. That was what I read about this app last year in that magezine. The employee was under so much pressure that he had to quit his job. The person who accessed the data had absolutely no legitimate reason to use it. Such sensitive information should not be available to an average men on the street - given that the HK is not really an educated society.
John Adams
I love your sense of humor :-)
And I do fully agree with you !
In fact the whole thing would be hilarious if it were not for the fact that it's true.



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