Hong Kong's new privacy commissioner will have to strike a balance on hot-button issue

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2015, 1:15am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2015, 1:15am

Sceptics of the modern privacy protection regime are known to lament that traditional notions of the sanctity of our privacy were outdated long before the age of big data. There is some truth in that. But that does not lessen two abiding concerns of the digital age. One is the ease with which both public and personal information can now be indiscriminately vacuumed up, retained, accessed and disseminated. The other is the need for vigilance lest measures to safeguard our privacy inhibit the free flow of information - a cornerstone of Hong Kong's development.

At times it is impossible to please everyone in reconciling the two values. That has not stopped the newly appointed privacy commissioner for personal data vowing to strike a balance. Barrister Stephen Wong Kai-yi, a former legal counsel with the Department of Justice and secretary of the Law Reform Commission, has stressed the importance of protecting the privacy of every individual as well as the free flow of information.

He found a case in point in his in-tray after starting his new job last week. That is his predecessor Allan Chiang Yam-wang's proposal to amend the Companies Ordinance to end disclosure of the full addresses and identity numbers of directors in the Companies Register - a change requested by the Chamber of Hong Kong Listed Companies - because he said uncontrolled access might cause harm. This raises the question of how much privacy should be afforded someone who becomes a director of a company that lists its shares publicly and borrows money.

The government put the proposal on hold in 2013 after opposition from journalists, who cited reliance on information from the registry for investigative reports, banking circles and some lawyers. Wong says he will listen to more opinions and look at the greater public interest to strike a balance. His appointment has been hailed in government and legal circles for his expertise in human rights and public law. Hopefully, he can find a way forward on this issue that enhances that reputation.