Governments and individuals must be vigilant when it comes to protecting private data online

Addresses, phone numbers and identity card details are being stored on sites that can be hacked, as shown in the case of Hong Kong-listed firm VTech, which make devices for children

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 December, 2015, 4:37pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 December, 2015, 4:37pm

Few people think about cybersecurity when using online services or mobile phone apps. While the internet brings knowledge, experience and convenience, the risk of privacy breaches also rises. The hacking of customer accounts at a global children’s learning product firm is a reminder that internet safety should not be taken for granted. The privacy watchdog has swiftly launched an investigation after VTech said some five million accounts, including profiles of more than 200,000 children, had been broken into from its app store database. The Hong Kong-listed firm was hacked weeks ago but only discovered the breach recently. It remains unclear how many local customers have been affected. Still, the case is potentially the city’s biggest corporate data breach since 2011, when overseas hackers crashed the stock exchange regulatory disclosure website. Authorities in the US states of Connecticut and Illinois also reportedly planned to probe the security breach.

Companies and organisations certainly have a responsibility to guard against theft of personal data held in their hands. They also are expected to act responsibly when collecting such details. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. According to a survey by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data, collection of home addresses and phone numbers is common among websites and mobile apps. Up to 70 per cent in the survey samples do so, outpacing the international average rates of up to 22 per cent. Children and teenagers seem particularly vulnerable, as the watchdog found that one in three sites targeting youngsters aged 6 to 17 collected identity card numbers.

That makes awareness and vigilance all the more important. Credit goes to the privacy watchdog for putting the spotlight on the issue. As Privacy Commissioner Stephen Wong Kai-yi rightly cautioned, internet users have to be careful when leaving a digital footprint. The commission should step up education and publicity on the importance of personal data protection. Users also should think twice before giving away personal data.