Privacy chief's spy camera run-in

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 July, 2010, 12:00am

Former postmaster general Allan Chiang Yam-wang was named the next privacy commissioner yesterday - and immediately sought to explain away a run-in he had with the office he has been chosen to lead.

Chiang was head of Hongkong Post when it was investigated by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner in 2005 after six pinhole cameras concealed in socket-like boxes were installed at the Cheung Sha Wan post office - some near washrooms and changing rooms. Staff were not told about them.

At the time, Chiang explained that they were installed to catch a thief. The cameras were later dismantled and the recordings made were destroyed after the privacy commissioner issued an enforcement notice describing the use of secret cameras as highly intrusive.

Recalling the incident yesterday, Chiang said his brush with the privacy watchdog had stoked his 'passion' for privacy protection and inspired him to apply for the job. He admitted he had not known enough about protecting personal data at the time.

'A fall in the pit is a gain in my wit,' Chiang said. 'This incident gave rise to my interest in privacy protection, and is one of the reasons I applied for the position.'

Stephen Lam Sui-lung, the secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, said Chiang had been proactive in handling the incident, and he believed that the experience had given the former postmaster general a greater sense of responsibility about the handling of personal data.

Chiang, 59, was picked by an independent committee from a list of 121 applicants. He worked for the government for 33 years and was postmaster general from 2003 to 2006.

Lam said he expected Chiang's rich experience in public administration could help make the work of the privacy office more balanced.

Lam Po-chun, vice-chairman of the Union of Hong Kong Post Office Employees, who slammed Chiang at the time over use of pinhole cameras, expressed disappointment.

'The government obviously didn't consult the public before appointing a person with such a weak sense of privacy protection and human rights,' he said.

The union leader also claimed Chiang did not pay heed to the interests of post office staff while in the job, because he had left vacancies unfilled and hired contract staff to fill senior positions, reducing the opportunities for staff to win promotion. 'Chiang's three-year term in office was the darkest age in the last 20 years of Hongkong Post,' he said.

After retiring, Chiang was awarded the Silver Bauhinia Star before becoming the chief executive of the Hong Kong Design Centre in 2007.

He became embroiled in controversy a year later when the centre was criticised by the Audit Commission for overspending on entertainment and travel. Among the criticisms was the HK$75,000 spent on a dinner with designers and the booking of business class air tickets.

The man Chiang will take over from at the commission, Roderick Woo Bun was also criticised by the Audit Commissioner last year for overspending and inefficient operations.

Law Yuk-kai, director of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, said independent watchdogs in Hong Kong were seen as a revolving door for retired government officials to seek other vacancies in government.

He said the Paris Principles, adopted by the United Nations, suggested appointing individuals with experience in protecting human rights to national institutions which promote and protect human rights. Law said Chiang apparently had no such background.

Chiang took what some saw as a gamble when, in 2001, 3 million stamps commemorating Beijing's winning bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games, were issued just 12 hours after the International Olympic Committee announced the result of voting on which city should host the Games. The stamps had been printed before it was known Beijing would win.

Chiang, who was acting postmaster general at the time, said the joint stamp issue with Beijing and Macau was meant as a surprise to foster 'one country sentiment' and had been planned for six months.

One of Chiang's notable achievements in his time as head of Hongkong Post was to bring in a HK$17 million profit in the 2003-04 financial year after five successive years of losses. The following financial year, profits surged by 1,223 per cent, to HK$225 million.

For personal reasons, Chiang will begin work as privacy commissioner on August 4, four days after Woo's term ends.

Margaret Chiu Sai-fong, deputy privacy commissioner, will serve as acting commissioner in the intervening three days.

One of the pressing privacy issues today is the decision of the company issuing Octopus cards to pass to two insurance firms the personal data of 2.4 million cardholders who signed up its rewards scheme. The privacy commissioner starts hearings on the matter tomorrow. Chiang said he was not worried about having to catch up on the issue. He said he was in close contact with Woo to ensure a smooth handover.