University accused of serious misconduct after leaking photos of men ‘pasting posters mocking suicide’
Commissioner stops short of issuing sanctions against school over photos of suspects who pasted posters mocking death of official’s son
Hong Kong’s privacy watchdog chastised Education University for leaking images of two men suspected of pasting posters mocking the suicide of a top education official’s son in a case that sparked debate over the rights of personal data and free speech.
Despite describing the release of photos to the media as a “serious misconduct”, Privacy Commissioner Stephen Wong Kai-yi said on Thursday he would not sanction the university because management had taken internal measures to prevent the a similar incident from happening again.
“Our purpose is to improve the protection for personal data, which has already been realised quickly” by the university, said Wong.
Twelve sheets of A4 paper were put up on the university’s democracy wall on September 7, hours after Poon Hong-yan, the son of deputy education chief Christine Choi Yuk-lin, jumped to his death from the 41st floor of a residential complex in Yau Ma Tei.
It “congratulated” Choi on the incident in Chinese.
The posters sparked moral outrage in the city, with Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor calling the posters “cold-blooded” and Education University council chairman Frederick Ma Si-hang saying there were “limits to freedom of speech”, although the university’s student union, which was responsible for administrating the wall, issued a statement stressing the importance of free speech.
At noon the day after the posters were pasted, university vice-chancellor Stephen Cheung Yan-leung said two young men were filmed by closed-circuit televisions cameras putting up the posters.
Later that afternoon, a photo taken of the CCTV footage, in which two men with their faces blurred were described as suspects, appeared on in online and print media. The images triggered questions on whether the university had leaked the image and violated laws protecting personal data.
In a radio interview, Wong said the photo was taken by a member the university’s security team and was sent to two WhatsApp groups before it was leaked.
“The staff first sent the photo to a group of the university’s management, where there were around 10 people, and someone from this group passed the photo to another consisting of some university staff and one student,” said the commissioner.
Wong said it was acceptable for the university to identify the duo with the footage but it was a “serious misconduct” to spread the image without any warning or guidelines for its usage.
“No reminder or warning of confidentiality was sent along with the photo when it arrived at the two groups,” said Wong.
The university was still continuing its investigation into the leaked photos, but Wong said that was not necessary for his office to conclude the liability in this case.
“According to the Privacy Ordinance, the security centre and the management of the university should be held accountable because they collect, possess and manage the footage,” said Wong, adding that his office would consider another round of investigations if further complaints over the use of personal data was filed.
The commissioner said an enforcement notice – part of the normal follow-up action if an investigation confirms a data user has contravened the Privacy Ordinance – was unnecessary because the university set up personal data guidelines and announced new confidentiality rules.
Education University said it would adhere to the ruling of the Privacy Commission and was implementing regulations on CCTV surveillance and confidentiality rules for WhatsApp groups.
The university apologised for the leak and would take measures suggested by students and teachers to protect privacy on campus.