HK Privacy Commissioner: dumb and dumber

Hong Kong bureaucrats’ unwillingness to accept that they are wrong can lead to much hilarity. Behold the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data, whose office is insisting that collating publicly available information from various sources and publishing it on-line as a package breaches data privacy laws. Or, at least, might. The reasoning is idiotic.

The story so far… Back in the mists of time, many companies and organizations in Hong Kong fell into the habit of asking for clients’ ID card numbers in order to confirm their identity, for example in day-to-day telephone transactions. Many people came to mistakenly believe that these numbers could and should be secret, like passwords.

Earlier this year, a government proposal to bar public access to company directors’ ID card numbers ran into belated opposition as the media and others realized the repercussions. To underline the fact that these unique numbers are no more than identifiers, corporate governance activist David Webb gathered those of 1,100 directors from publicly available sources, added his own, and put them on a single page on-line.

The list included some important ‘famous’ people, so no doubt lots of us visited the site and enjoyed the brief thrill of seeing banker David Li’s and developer Ronnie Chan’s ID numbers. After the initial frisson, some of us became intrigued by the pattern of distribution of Hong Kong Chinese, Western and Pinyin names throughout the alphanumeric list. A few possibly had the presence of mind to save a copy of the page. Then the PCPD demanded that the site be removed and issued one of the stupidest press releases Hong Kong officialdom has produced for – at a guess – a good few months.

Mr Webb took the list down. Publicly trapping a Hong Kong bureaucracy in its own silliness must be tempting, but the point had already been made. Indeed, the PCPD’s actions – essentially censoring information you can already find somewhere else – only attracted more attention from international media. That meant more attention for Mr W’s own views on the PCPD’s sheer illogicality, and the importance of ID card numbers in maintaining transparency. Indeed, the press release could almost have been designed to further undermine the PCPD’s case…

The PCPD notes with concern the recent commentary in the media that ID card numbers are not personal data but mere identifiers…

But they are mere identifiers, whatever some people might use them for. “The PCPD notes with desperation that much of its current and past work on ID card numbers has been pointless, and indeed wrong.”

…data users who collect personal data must observe the provisions of the [privacy laws]…

As Mr W points out, he was merely collating previously collected data. If the PCPD is right, a kid who gathers Cantopop stars’ birth dates on-line and puts them on his Facebook page is breaking the law. Where the PCPD gets really, embarrassingly stupid, however, is in its contortions over the ‘original purpose’ of data collection…

The act of putting up the names and ID card numbers of others which have been obtained from public registers on the internet for uncontrolled public access is use of personal data that is not directly related to the original purpose of collection…

So a piece of data that is publicly available from one information source for one reason may not be made publicly available elsewhere for some other purpose. The real reason for this principle in our privacy rules is to prevent companies from abusing clients’ data to make money (using contact details to compile phone or mailing lists, say). The PCPD declares, with a straight face, that data somehow transmogrifies from public to private when copied and pasted among public domains.

To save its precious face, the PCPD stubbornly clings to the fact that HKID card numbers are indeed used as authenticators ‘in real life’. Rather than discourage this practice as insecure, they seek to give it official approval, which of course then logically requires them to try to treat ID card numbers as personal and private, which we can’t because they are the way we all ultimately sort out one John Chan from another. As a final insult to our intelligence, the press release ends up with a reference to police prosecutions of people using other’s ID cards. We are presumably supposed to infer that making directors’ ID card numbers public will actually encourage crime.

Seeking an explanation for the ridiculousness of these privacy officials’ arguments, people are now seeing the hand of Beijing here. The government’s proposal about company directors’ details would make it harder for the press to trace national leaders’ families’ hidden wealth. Then the Privacy Commissioner turns into a blundering censor of websites. But Beijing wouldn’t do it so clumsily. Only the knuckleheads at the PCPD could manage that, and it surely can’t be long now before they have to climb down.

Click to hear the Jaggs’ ‘I’ve got Your Number’!

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33 Responses to HK Privacy Commissioner: dumb and dumber

  1. Bela Bolshy says:

    Of course the hand of Peking is at hand to some extent. But the iron hand of History is stronger. Marx could see Dave coming:

    “A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society. To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind.”

    Webb is a Bourgeois Socialist pursuing “fair capitalism”, which is as much a mirage as Findus Select Cuts. There is no fair capitalism Dave. Give it up.

    Webb will have to decide where he stands – as an agent provocateur aiding the final cataclysm or as a hindrance to socialism. That sort of struggle begins not at the stock exchange but in the factories of Shenzhen and the Lumpenproletariat of East Kowloon. They don’t have web sites. Many don’t have teeth.

    In the meantime, I suggest Dave opens up a teetotal animal sanctuary! Much more useful.

  2. Joe Blow says:

    It is not just Dave, Bela. It’s all of you expat geriatrics here, include property owner and class enemy Hemlock. Btw, I heard a few years back that Webb is sitting on approximately HK$ 150 million (must be a whole lot more now). That is hardly bourgeoisie anymore. More like Daddy Warbucks.

  3. Real Tax Payer says:

    What BS this is about ID card numbers ! Why is it that when I want to communicate with companies like PCCW they don’t even want to know my name – they just want my ID card number ? In fact the 1000 hotline recorded message asks me to type in my ID card number before I even can get to speak to anyone . This whole thing is not only idiotic – it’s serious bad news if the PCPD has got its knickers in such a twist.

    More bad news : The Big Lychee is now officially blocked in China (it never was so before) . So much for Xi Jiping’s new openness to criticism. I guess that humorous satire of the kind written in this blog falls outside the pale.

    Still one nice thing about getting back to HK from a week in the Mainland is catching up on TBL.

    I had a quiet chuckle this morning when reading last week’s TBL and some of the comments about the tourist invasion, especially what pcatbar wrote :

    “I hope those of my near neighbours who are senior civil servants, (including CY himself) were trying to get home anytime from 11am – 8pm on 11-13 Feb. If so they would have been held up in traffic for 30 mins while crawling no more than 1.5 km up Peak Road at less than walking pace, (when moving at all).” *

    If you think that’s bad, consider a totally gridlocked provincial town center in whichmy taxi had gone no further than 150 meters (forget about km ) in one hour, and I was on certain course to miss my flight. I therefore had to resort to doing what I have often done before in such situations in the Mainland : viz getting out of the taxi and directing the traffic myself to the great amusement and iPhone pic-snapping delight of one and all. (But I did finally extricate my taxi and catch the flight).

    I guess I will appear in some local newspaper today : “Hero Laowai plain clothes cop sorts out traffic jam”

    Never a dull moment in China !

    * PS I have a much better idea than welding manhole covers open or Bela’s “HK is full / now go home” badges. Let’s distribute flyers at Luowo with the advert : “Come and visit the home of HK’s CE / Have your picture taken outside the home of HK’s FS / Burn joss sticks for good luck outside the apartment block where HK’s tourism minister lives”

  4. Mary Hinge says:

    From my first car registration number, you could tell the city in which it was allocated, and also the year of registration.

    I wonder if something similar is encoded within the pattern of HKIDs (nationality, caste, birth year and/or date/year of arrival in HK), which makes HKSAR government scared to have them openly and widely listed (I appreciate that Mr Webb collated his data from open source), in case the secrets of the ‘code’ are later revealed?

    Otherwise – yeah, it’s Beijing. The NYT/Wen Jiabao exposé seems to shine the light on why these changes were being proposed.

    Anyway, a pity that Mr Webb took his list down (even if perfectly understandable). Enforcement action/injunction would have been very interesting/entertaining from a bystander’s perspective.

  5. Stephen says:

    We all know there is such a thing as identity theft but this doesn’t seem to be what this about. As you correctly state it’s probably some ludicrous bureaucrat(s) working for a bloated bureaucracy, insulated in its own little world stacked full of likeminded twits, who believe in there absolute self-importance.

    Yes Britain created the Hong Kong civil service but the locals have taken it to higher levels of lunacy especially when they have to contort themselves to some mainland edict.

    It isn’t going to change though because nobody has the bollocks to take them on.

  6. David Webb says:

    Thanks for the comments. Take the opinion poll at the link above!

    @Joe Blow: I had to look up Daddy Warbucks, and after due consideration I take that as a compliment.

    @Bela Bolshy: if you want socialism, try China before 1979 or North Korea today. We can all be equal but poor, or we can have prosperity with opportunity, reward and inequality. Capitalism may not be fair – it disproportionately rewards those with genetic advantage in sports, beauty or intelligence, but it also rewards hard work and is better than the alternative of a centrally-planned, fully-redistributive economy devoid of incentive.

    Stand by for my Alternative Budget Speech, coming soon 🙂

  7. Property Developer says:

    Is it just you and me, or is the addition of “might” or “may” in charging people with offences/crimes a recent and/or Sinified weasel way of making allegations without committing oneself? How can people defend themselves agianst innuendo and hearsay?

    I greatly admire David Webb’s fight aginst creeping turpitude and malevolent secrecy. But I’m not sure that the Privacy Commission isn’t half right here. Publicly available information can’t always be freely re-used. Website photographs of non-public-figure people are personal data; and printed books and online texts are — in theory at least — protected by copyright.

    We operate in a cultural universe where clear boundaries are constantly under attack, where transparency is interpreted as an invitation to trespass, where principled stands soon get cut down. So Bela scores another point, despite his deliberately provocative manner.

  8. Xiaoyao says:

    Support David Webb!

  9. colonelkurtz says:

    I never imagined DWebb would use emoticons.

  10. Bela Bolshy says:


    You don’t know the difference between socialism and communism. I guess they are both anathema to you.

    Rewarding genetic advantage – have you seen the British upper class recently? Or have your seen what inbreeding has done to the Li, Lee and Kwok families? And is Warren Buffett genetically desirable to anything but a blind stoat?

    So maybe you are a Bourgeois Eugenicist too. Who are the genetically superior and what are their traits? Enlighten us David.

    Perhaps you are part of the HK Herrenrasse. Prost!

  11. Real Tax Payer says:

    Seems I am in good company , David Webb being a person I admire greatly 🙂

  12. David Webb says:

    @Property Developer: thanks but let’s not confuse the issue of public domain data with copyright. Photographs are creative works, as are books and blogs, so they are protected by copyright law (subject to limitations, fair use etc). Facts (data), on the other hand, are not creative works, and there is no copyright in a fact.

  13. nulle says:

    David Webb, how do we support you?

    why don’t we just publish the darn list on a site outside HK? That way the list can’t be touched… Make sure it is a private site hosted by independently.

  14. Jeff says:


    For your alternate budget, don’t forget to address the following:


    Rates rebates for property owners. Massively regressive. Although I do write my rent off every year, and I imagine you will say that the rates will just be passed on to me anyway. But that should not justify this absurd tax break. It’s the principle of the thing.

    Rent rebates for non tax payers living in public housing. Equally absurd. A subsidy on a subsidy.

    Add: Tax breaks for school fees, which are absurdly high. I have no choice but to pay these fees, as the government has cocked up the system here. It is not a free market at this time, as no school is competing on fee levels. They do not have to, as we are short thousands of places. Yes, this might cause further increases, unintended consequences I know, but again, can the taxpaying professional class get a break on something?

    The professional middle class with kids are getting killed right now. I’d like a little more of the Mill I’ve paid to be given back please. 6 grand is no going to cut it. Not with a trillion in reserves. Oh, be sure to address that also.

    Carry on. 🙂

  15. Jeff says:

    On the ID number issue:

    Print up a T shirt with your ID no. on the front, and wear it with pride this summer at the beach.

  16. Real Tax Payer says:

    Hey – here’s a good one !

    I just called the PCPD hotline complaint service to ask why it is that PCCW uses my HKID as the main identifier of me ( not as confirmation of who RTP is )

    In other words I am listed at PCCW NOT as Mr RTP , DoB 1.1.1900 of XYZ address ( confirmation of the fact that I’m the only Mr RTP with DoB 1.1.1900 living at XYZ being that my HKID is AB123456 ) Rather I am listed at PCCW as “AB123456” (sex not specified) who is – for confirmation is known as Mr RTP, DoB/ address etc

    My question to the slightly luke- warm body aka hotline duty officer was : Is this a correct procedure on the part of PCCW ?

    He could not answer the question and so he asked me to fill in a complaint form….. and here’s the really funny part :

    The PCPD complaint form requires not only my name, address and telephone ( as if that’s not enough to identify me uniquely) but it ALSO requires a copy of my HKID card !

  17. Chopped Onions says:

    Is it me or have we suddenly got a little bit of excitement happening here on good old Hemmer’s comments page, (excluding BJ of course)

  18. darovia says:

    Power to David Webb, but it would have been great to see this in court.

    Chaps, we are forgetting the procedure here. The govt will not be backing down on HKID numbers until we have had our rally; around 10 of Hemmer’s people will attend and the police will estimate the crowd at 5.
    When marching let’s follow up on @Jeff and wear our numbered T-shirts with pride.

  19. Property Developer says:

    David Webb, I don’t believe I’m confused. If a photo is taken of you, then published, then goes out of copyright (a hypothetical case, where you were photographed very young, and the photographer dies soon after), it’s still a matter of your privacy, quite independent of copyright. Similarly photos taken by machines, including CCTV, aren’t in copyright are they, but I still wouldn’t want them appearing all over the place.

    As a matter of fact I wouldn’t want just everyone to know my ID number, although I do support your attempt to derail the Peking style attempt to suppress information about company directors.

    Jeff, As far as I know, it’s a trillion and a half and still counting.

    RTP, When you say that BL is “officially” banned in TPRC, does that mean the news is in China Daily?

  20. Real Tax Payer says:

    @ darovia

    I like it . That’s one rally I could even be persuaded to join , just for the sheer hell of it

  21. Incredulous says:

    I don’t get David Webb’s poll. It tells me my email address is wrong and my PIN is wrong. So I have to sign up for his newsletter to participate. Great democracy, mate!

  22. Bela Bormann says:


    Clearly you are not rassenrein. Not Aryan enough.

  23. Alfred Bester says:

    @ Property Developer: I think you’re assuming the modern alter of “Copyright” is a godly and righteous thing. Perhaps a critique of this recent legal animal is overdue, let alone of its hugely overgrown younger sibling “Patent”.

    To be contrarian: just maybe human innovation, genes, knowledge and expression should be free for all of us to use, access, sing, write, develop, get well from, or even swipe (just ask Samsung in the US). These are artificial monopoly rights granted to guarantee additional rent seeking and, in reality, rarely remain with the actual author or inventor.

    It’s a classic case of the public good being defeated by private gain by an unholy alliance of IT giants, big pharma and the American motion picture lobby; gradually turning 30 year rights into 50 year rights into ‘tinker to renew indefinitely’ rights. When a smart phone contains 250,000 different bits of IP right we are all paying too much and it’s absolutely killing new entrants in these tech markets.

  24. Real Tax Payer says:

    @ Property Developer

    What I mean is that it’s suddenly impossible to log into TBL in China, just as it’s impossible to log into Youtube ( get broken DNS error message)

    Last year I could always log into TBL when in China . Alas no more

    Bloody CCCCCCCCP – no sense of humor

  25. Joe Blow says:

    When I lived in China 7-8 years ago, Hemlock was also blocked, I think. However, I could view Not The South China Morning Post. Wasn’t that Adams/ Bela’s thing ?

    Or maybe it was the other way round. (Alzheimer is a bitch, y’know.)

  26. Sojourner says:

    “Capitalism may not be fair – it disproportionately rewards those with genetic advantage in sports, beauty or intelligence …”

    It even more disproportionally favours those who already come from privilieged and affluent backgrounds. I thought the myth that capitalism is a meritocracy was exploded decades ago.

    To cite one example, the New York Times had a splendid article the other day on the Chinese education system that graphically reveals how EVERYTHING is weighted against pupils and students from poor and rural backgrounds:

  27. Property Developer says:

    Alfred Bester, We weren’t discussing copyright!

    What I thought we were trying to tease out was whether some spotty youth can train his 40X zoom lens motion detector on my bathroom, whether Hemlock can demand my real name before allowing me to post, whether employers can keep their employees’ passports, whether David Webb can publish my ID no., nationality and age.

    In fact this is a huge grey area in practice, where any dogmatism for or against would be out of place, but where our well-intentioned British-trained legalistic bureaucrats will always be a generation out of date and touch — hence the need for the David Webbs of this world.

    RTP Wasn’t that I saw you directing traffic on a blog a few months ago? (could have been Beijing Cream or some such). When you say it’s bad news Hemlock becoming an unofficial evil polluter of the masses, although undoubtedly predictable, and indeed predicted, surely it’s a badge of honour that should be paraded through the steets?

  28. Real Tax Payer says:

    @ Joe Blow

    I have always been able to get the SCMP ( and the HK Standard) on line in China in the past 5 -6 years , and still can do so OK – albeit slow download speed and embedded video links are blocked

    Last year I could definitely get TBL in China, but now no more . I really can’t think why because the masses can’t even understand the obscure sense of ironic humor that is usually expressed on TBL.

    But maybe Xi Ji Ping can …..

  29. Aaron Swartz says:

    I’m rolling over in my grave.

  30. David Webb says:

    @incredulous – just put your e-mail in the box, receive a PIN, then vote. Then unsubscribe if you want. The PIN is to deter multiple voting (unless you can be bothered to use multiple addresses).

  31. Mongkok Mzungu says:

    The whole debate about the public disclosure of directors’ HKID numbers is utterly pointless. Anybody who needs a HK company but has anything to hide can just put in place a corporate director. And believe me, they do so – widely and frequently. If the corporate director is a BVI, Seychelles, Samoan or any other half-shady-island entity, then all bets on the individual director’s identity are off. Even in criminal cases it is very hard for authorities to track down the ultimate identity of a shareholder or director who has put a bit of effort into concealing it.

    Those who just list themselves as individual directors without such layering generally really have nothing to hide and probably couldn’t care less whether their identification is facilitated by having their HKID on file too. Hence, to pretend that having such individual directors’ ID numbers publicly available yes/no will change anything at all on measures of corporate governance and transparency in Hong Kong is actually ridiculous. It won’t matter. Period. If anything, the real debate should be about whether we should continue to allow the use of offshore corporate directors for Hong Kong company purposes, especially of jurisdictions with less than scrupulous standards.

    And no, just because a piece of personal information is a ‘fact’ and/or publicly available does not mean a that you can freely collect it and/or further spread it. I give my credit card info, passport details and so on to Bermuda Airlines, but that does not mean they are free to keep it, let alone put it up on a website for the world to see. And even if I consent to them doing that, and they do it, that does mean Air Atlantis then has the right to copy it and spread it further.

    My eye colour, name, the details on my HK birth certificate, the observable fact that I take public transport bus 44X every morning, my job history on (say) LinkedIn, my Hong Kong business registry directorship information etc etc, are all in one way or another publicly available. But that does not mean David Webb or any other ‘clever’ person has the right to collect, aggregate, store or republish those pieces of personal information, which in the end, belong to me. That I have consented for my HKID to be in the business register, does not mean I have consented for it to be on a billboard, or a t-shirt or on a webbsite. The PCDP has worded it clumsily, but they are mostly correct by the standards of privacy in Hong Kong and beyond.

  32. Property Developer says:

    RTP, Joe Blow’s sense of ironic humour has caught you napping. He self-importantly cited “_NOT_ the SCMP”, not “the SCMP” (punctuation does serve a purpose after all).

    It was the arch self-publicist Joe who set up the former rag, on which, incidentally, BL cut its baby teeth.

  33. The Regulator says:

    The HKD6000 HK Govt handout in 2011 and 2012 required the collection of ID and bank details of every Permanent Resident who applied.

    The data privacy laws bind the Govt but nonetheless, the HKD6000 application form declared that data collected would be shared with other Govt departments.

    The Inland Revenue Department collects the same information and uses it to deduct money assessed on estimated tax assessments from bank account records it holds. There is no appeal against this process.

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