My Take

Beware of privacy issues in mock online election

Organisers using mobile apps and a website to give the people a voice in leadership election could be putting data at risk of hacking

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 12:53am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 12:53am

Benny Tai Yiu-ting of Occupy Central fame is set to relaunch a mock nomination and election of the chief executive. The so-called civil referendum uses a mobile app and a website to encourage people to nominate and vote for “candidates”.

Critics including the privacy commissioner have expressed alarm. Tai’s previous ThunderGo mobile app debacle was accused by even some pan-democratic candidates in the last Legislative Council election of distorting the voting outcomes by favouring extremist candidates over more mainstream ones.

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Compared to that, his latest “referendum” seems harmless enough – that is, until you think about what Tai and his group Citizens United in Action might be doing with the massive personal data they have been collecting from ThunderGo and now this. Do they use them for other purposes; delete them after use; or store them in a database, and for how long? And how vulnerable is their data storage to hacking?

In a rare foray into the city’s fractious politics, the privacy commissioner expressed concerns earlier this month about their handling of personal data from participants. As a result, Tai and his group temporarily halted the “referendum” last week. Now they claim they have resolved the security issues. Perhaps users can take his word for it; they take part at their own risk. The commissioner would do well to continue probing his group and intervene if necessary.

The mock voting involves two stages. People can first pick their chief executive candidates via a mobile app or a designated website. They will then vote on their favourite as well as least favoured candidates. In an attempt to influence the real election outcome, Tai said pan-democratic members, who make up more than a quarter of the 1,194-strong Election Committee, should use the public votes as a guide when casting their own ballots.

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But this is really less interfering than it sounds. In the end, the election likely comes down to former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and ex-finance chief John Tsang Chun-wah. Most pan-democrats have already decided to back Tsang.

Unlike many pro-establishment critics, I don’t see anything wrong with the mock referendum. Certainly everyone deserves a vote and would have had one by now if pan-democratic lawmakers didn’t vote down the government’s universal suffrage package in 2015.

But people should worry their private data being potentially misused or insufficiently protected.