Personal information more at risk than ever in age of big data, Hong Kong privacy watchdog head says

Stephen Wong says people and businesses are still unclear about legislation, and underestimate risks

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 December, 2017, 7:07pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 December, 2017, 10:20pm

Protecting personal information online would become more challenging as the world entered the age of big data, Hong Kong’s privacy chief said on Saturday, calling on both individuals and companies to pay greater attention to the risks involved.

Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data Stephen Wong Kai-yi said under a new era where “data means money”, the digital footprints left behind by internet users as they shopped online had become a coveted resource for companies.

While the use of such data could create business opportunities and boost efficiency, he warned it could also place one’s privacy at stake.

Hong Kong must do more on data protection

“A large volume of personal data can be collected online and offline. With the help of advanced skills in data scraping ... one’s deepest secrets may be exposed while results of the analyses may be biased or embarrassing to others. The people involved are usually kept in the dark,” Wong said in a statement published by broadcaster RTHK.

“The difficulties in predicting how the [collected] data would be used have made the work in protecting [it] very challenging.”

The warning came after the city’s privacy watchdog released its latest report which highlighted how some shops failed to provide customers with transparency, choices and control over the use of personal data when they signed up for memberships and loyalty programmes.

Data-driven innovation is possible without infringing on privacy

Over two years since he took up the post, Wong said he had observed that Hongkongers still did not pay close attention or maintain consistency in protecting their personal data.

Companies, at the same time, were not committed enough to safeguard customers’ data, he said.

Wong said he believed the situation largely stemmed from the lack of understanding of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, as well as individuals and companies underestimating privacy risks.

The deterrent effect of the city’s laws in dealing with violations in this area was also smaller than expected, he added.

The privacy commissioner pledged to strengthen a public education campaign, a move he said would be more effective than relying solely on law enforcement and penalties.