Hong Kong’s unofficial chief executive election opinion poll pulled over privacy fears

Privacy commissioner had urged post-Occupy protest group to stop poll, warning that it might break the law

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 February, 2017, 1:51pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 12:02am

Organisers of an unofficial online poll on who should be the next chief executive have suspended their ballot after the privacy watchdog warned them it might be breaking the law.

Citizens United In Action, one of whose leaders is Occupy Central co-founder ­Benny Tai Yiu-ting, said it had halted the process until its members had spoken to Privacy Commissioner Stephen Wong Kai-yi.

“Although we have confidence in our system’s security, we will suspend collecting nominations until we are in contact with the commissioner to explain the purpose of our data collection and be clear about his requirements,” the post-Occupy protest group stated.

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On Monday, Wong said his office “strongly” asked the group to stop collecting voters’ personal data “unfairly” on its PopVote smartphone app and popvote.hk website.

He also called on them to stop using Telegram, the popular ­instant messaging smartphone app on which the voting platform was built.

The organisers created the so-called “civil referendum” to continue the demand of Occupy protesters for public nominations in the chief executive election, which is now only open to voting by the 1,194 members of the Election Committee. They will cast their ballots on March 26.

The poll, conducted by the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion programme and Polytechnic University’s centre for social policy studies, has been drawing security concerns since it was started on February 7.

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Voters are asked to provide their name, telephone number and identity card number to register on the platform.

Organisers said the collection of identity card numbers was to avoid duplicate voting.

They have a written statement on the platform to explain the use of personal data.

But Wong said the existing ­privacy risks in the platform might not only result in irrecoverable data loss, but also contravene data security principles in the city’s privacy law.

He also said there was a lack of transparency in setting out ­the details and objectives in collecting data.

The platform’s connection to Telegram has drawn challenges from a lawmaker and other information technology experts, who expressed concern that the design might expose users’ Telegram conversations, as they needed to input their Telegram login code to enter.

As of 4am on Tuesday, almost 16,000 people had voted for 12 candidates in the unofficial poll.

Topping the list is former financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, who had received 8,146 “public nominations”.

Second was pan-democrat lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hair, who was backed by 5,349 people.

Leung said he would only seek to enter the real race if the poll recorded support from 38,000 people – 1 per cent of the city’s registered voters.

IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok said it was true that the link to Telegram could save money compared with using text messages to identify voters, but it risked opening the door to hackers.

Citizens United In Action and platform designer Civic Data Hong Kong previously admitted they could not completely eliminate cybersecurity risks, which they said would be minimal.

The pollster has organised large-scale “civil referendums” in the past. The poll on political reform organised by Occupy Central in 2014 recorded “one of the largest cyberattacks in history”, according to a United States-based cybersecurity firm that helped counter an attempt to crash the system.

Almost 800,000 people voted in that poll.