A change in the air? Hong Kong privacy tsar says data protection should not halt innovation and that includes drones

‘Fair enforcement’ following the ‘spirit’ of both users and the law to be emphasised

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 September, 2016, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 September, 2016, 10:42am

Hong Kong’s privacy tsar says data protection should not obstruct innovation and that drones play a leading role in developing emerging technologies, marking a shift in his office’s stance on the unmanned aerial vehicles.

The comments by Privacy Commissioner Stephen Wong Kai-yi coincide with Shenzhen drone-maker DJI opening its first brick-and-mortar store in Hong Kong over the weekend, a move expected to renew interest in drones and expand the base of local users, which numbers more than 5,000.

The flying machines, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, have raised concerns around the world, such as with aviation regulators over the threats they pose to air safety. UAVs have also sparked worry over privacy as they may be operated remotely and can conceal that they are filming.

In an exclusive interview with the Post, however, Wong said privacy laws should be assessed not simply by following the “letter” of the ordinance but by considering the “spirit” of users.

Watch: 3rd Hong Kong drone race

The more relaxed approach is new for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data. Wong’s predecessor Allan Chiang Yam-wang warned that drones were “unblinking eyes in the sky”. Both Chiang and Wong had expressed privacy concerns because a camera on a drone could film people without their permission.

But Wong’s latest comments signalled a business-friendly tone. “We shouldn’t try to stop the creative industries, innovation or commercial activities unnecessarily,” he told the Post. “We shouldn’t be intruding or hampering the activities.”

We shouldn’t try to stop the creative industries, innovation or commercial activities unnecessarily
Stephen Wong Kai-yi, Privacy Commissioner

He said “fair enforcement” would be emphasised. “Fair means we don’t just enforce the law according to the letters of the legislation, [but] also the intention and spirit,” he explained.

The city’s regulations on drones are determined by the Civil Aviation Department and have been under review since April. Increasingly, governments around the world including the US have reformed regulations to accommodate the technology .

Under Hong Kong regulations, drone flights are divided into non-commercial and commercial use, with the latter requiring a licence. For commercial use, for example, drones cannot be flown within 5km of an airport or within 50m of people and buildings. In addition, users are expected to demonstrate flying experience. Drones that are used for recreational purposes are largely restricted to fly on coastlines but away from Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong International Airport.

Mark Parsons, a Hong Kong-based partner at law firm Hogan Lovells specialising in technology, media and telecommunications, questioned whether drone users were aware of their responsibilities regarding data protection.

He called for awareness of data protection issues and said “there are existing regulations that you need to comply with”.

Parsons added that Wong’s comments were consistent with a recognition that technological innovation and data protection were equally important to Hong Kong. Compared to the US, he said, the city was falling behind in updating its drone regulations.

Yet some contend that local drone regulations are unclear. Evelyn Mills, the founder of luxury wedding consultancy Marriage Maestros in Wan Chai, said challenges arose as UAVs became more common.

“We never used to have issues before, but we have since they’ve become more popular,” she said. “We are walking a really fine line and where do you draw it?”

Sometimes we in Hong Kong think too much about the negatives too much and too early
Charles Mok, information technology lawmaker

Michael Perry, DJI’s director of strategic partnerships, said regulators around the world told him they wanted “guidance [and a] clear conversation about what can and cannot be done”.

Information technology lawmaker Charles Mok welcomed the privacy tsar’s comments, but overall wanted fewer laws to avoid holding back technological ideas and developments.

“Regulations, not just privacy, should not stand in the way of innovation, at least not too early, so as not to stifle new ideas,” he said. “Sometimes we in Hong Kong think too much about the negatives too much and too early.”

Mok last week went on a fact-finding trip to Singapore and said he learned that police there were deploying drones for crowd surveillance and that fire authorities were using them to enter hazardous fire scenes and inspect forests.

A Civil Aviation Department spokeswoman, citing the desire to strengthen public safety, said it was reviewing “relevant” legislation to best suit Hong Kong, taking into account the requirements of overseas aviation regulators.

Additional reporting by Alice Woodhouse