Privacy commissioner is Luddite, says activist after Do No Evil app shutdown

Corporate crusader says the Do No Evil app was only providing what is already public and 'Luddite' commissioner should be replaced

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 9:02am

A prominent corporate governance activist has lashed out at the privacy watchdog for failing to acknowledge the need for easier access to information.

And David Webb says its commissioner, Allan Chiang Yam-wang, should be "replaced with someone who understands modern technology" better.

"Frankly, I think Mr Chiang is a technophobic Luddite and needs to be replaced by someone who won't keep attacking services that provide public access to data that is already public," said Webb.

He was responding to a move by the privacy watchdog to bar a company from supplying data on individuals - gleaned from publicly available litigation and bankruptcy records - via a smartphone application.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data yesterday said it had ordered the operator of mobile app Do No Evil to cease supplying "sensitive" data after it was found to have invaded personal data privacy by allowing users to search for individuals by name.

Webb said the watchdog's report contained several inconsistencies. "[Chiang's] position is inconsistent. He says it is OK for corporate services to do it for other corporations, but it is not OK for a business to provide this service to a consumer … tenants and landlords may want to look up whether either have been sued in the past and small businesses may want to conduct due diligence," Webb said.

"But any information that has gone through the courts is in the public domain so I don't see why they're forcing people to go down the corporate route."

Webb criticised the report's premise that people with similar names could be mistaken during a search, saying unique identifiers such as partial identification numbers, which are also public, would help to avoid mix-ups.

"The commissioner should explain why a company can provide [background search] services through web platforms and not mobile apps," he said.

Webb was forced by the watchdog earlier this year to withdraw a short-lived database listing the identity card numbers of 1,100 company directors including tycoons Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong and Li Ka-shing.

In both cases, the watchdog argues that misuse of personal data from public registries that is not directly related to the original purpose could constitute a breach of the privacy law.

Webb's push for the free flow of information was echoed by Alex Kong, of IT company Sino Dynamic Solutions, which developed the Do No Evil app. "We call the app Do No Evil to convey this message: easy public access to criminal records would help deter crime," he said.

The company argues that the data, which is all obtained from public records provided by the government, is for employers to conduct background searches and due diligence on potential employees. Kong gave the example of schools being required to check whether teachers had committed sex crimes.

A team of nine people had worked on the app for 18 months, he said. "A company once offered to buy the rights to the app for HK$600,000, but we refused the offer due to the long-term potential of the app. Now everything has been in vain," Kong said.

The firm has also scrapped plans to develop apps facilitating company and land searches.

The right of individuals to privacy is not absolute, the privacy commissioner said on Tuesday. It must be balanced against other rights and the public interest, he said. Exemptions from the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance include the use of personal data to prevent or detect crime or dishonesty, and for reporting purposes where information published is in the public interest.

He said the Do No Evil app "seriously invaded" privacy and the exemptions did not apply.