Hong Kong privacy watchdog urges vigilance as few cases prosecuted last year

Overwhelming majority of cases passed to police concerned use of personal data in direct marketing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 January, 2017, 7:26pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 January, 2017, 10:29pm

Less than 5 per cent of cases forwarded to police by the privacy commissioner led to prosecution last year, highlighting the watchdog’s challenges in clamping down on violations.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data also reminded teenagers to be more alert when safeguarding their personal information, saying many were too willing to trade privacy for benefits and avoid losing out on trending mobile phone apps.

Statistics revealed by the statutory body on Tuesday indicated 112 cases were passed on to police for criminal investigation last year, of which 109 concerned the use of personal data in direct marketing.

But only five cases led to prosecution – representing a 4.5 per cent prosecution rate – with three resulting in convictions.

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Brenda Kwok Mei-ling, the office’s chief legal counsel, said that while the watchdog recorded statements from complainants, it was left to police to contact incriminated parties.

“If [police] deem there is a lack of evidence [following an investigation], then surely no prosecution can be pursued,” she said.

Many feel they could not do without their mobile phones or certain apps, so they were less eager to protect their privacy
Stephen Wong, privacy commissioner

Chief personal data officer for enforcement and complaints Daniel Leung Chin-wah also called on the public to try to record details of their experience.

A common scenario, he said, saw people hanging up their phone immediately after realising a call related to direct marketing, without ascertaining which company was involved.

Others lodged complaints after their opt-out notices were ignored by marketing firms.

“But when we ask them when or under what method the notice was given, they could not recall details,” he said. “This makes it difficult for us to gather evidence.”

The watchdog received 16,180 enquiries last year, a 12 per cent drop from 2015. The number of complaints also dipped by 7 per cent to 1,838.

But internet-related enquiries bucked the overall trend by surging 22 per cent to 885 cases.

Privacy Commissioner Stephen Wong Kai-yi said studies had shown teenagers were looser than their elder peers in disclosing their personal information online, with many being indifferent.

“Many feel they could not do without their mobile phones or certain apps, so they were less eager to protect their privacy.”

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But the privacy chief said it was not always fair to blame users for being negligent as many received lengthy terms and conditions that were hard to understand.

“If you choose not to accept [the terms], then you’d be disqualified,” he said, meaning users could not use an app or service.

The growing popularity of dashboard cameras in taxis also caught the office’s attention.

Outrage erupted last month after a taxi driver uploaded a photo of a breastfeeding mum. He was arrested for accessing computers with criminal or dishonest intent. But Wong said the office could not start an investigation since the mum’s identity could not be ascertained – a prerequisite for the Privacy Ordinance – and nobody had lodged a complaint.