Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data Allan Chiang made himself look foolish enough last February when he insisted that Hong Kong ID Card numbers were ‘personal’ – that is, confidential – when their whole purpose is to allow others to identify the individual holder. Inexplicably, the man has come back for more. He has now taken it upon himself to ban smartphone app Do No Evil, which packages publicly available bankruptcy and litigation data for on-line access.
The key point here is that you can already get this information from court records, the Official Receiver’s Office and the Companies Registry, or you can pay specialist agencies to search for it. Access the exact same information collated in the Do No Evil database, however, and – according to Allan Chiang – you are suddenly invading people’s privacy. The Privacy Commissioner’s warped logic is that the app is ‘changing the purpose of use’ of the data.
This rule is supposed to stop companies from selling customers’ details to other parties. It is not Chiang’s job to tell us under what conditions we can access public records. Someone’s purpose for doing such a background check (typically due diligence, or it could be investigative journalism or, ideally, sheer nosiness) is irrelevant and none of the Privacy Commission’s business. Anyway, it has nothing to do with which method you use to access the data – which should also be none of the Commission’s business.
The charitable explanation is that Chiang is stuck in the days of paper and filing cabinets and still trying to get his head around such innovations as microfiches, let alone phones that aren’t even plugged into a wall socket and can download data from the Internet. Alternatively, he could be a desperate empire-building bureaucrat who is happy to crush private-sector innovators like the developers of Do No Evil and deny the public access to the community’s own stores of information to make himself feel oh-so big, puffed-up and important. Activist David Webb suggests that Chiang is both a ‘technophobic Luddite’ and engaging in ‘mission creep’.
The distressing thing is that Chiang’s civil service colleagues and government masters will look the other way, in order to collectively preserve face, rather than admit that one particular office-holder and establishment member has got it massively wrong twice now and is, to be blunt, unfit for his job. Maybe the international press will pick up the story and subject the Privacy Commission to merciless mockery.
Meanwhile we have to put up with this buffoonery. I can’t help wondering if Chiang is one of those people who freaks out if he steps on the cracks between paving stones and sets out the pencils on his desk so they are exactly 1 inch apart and wets himself if someone dislodges one. Do something in a particular way for a particular reason, and it’s OK; do exactly the same thing in a different way for a different reason, and it’s not allowed. Thus, perhaps, it is acceptable to consult the list of members of the Privacy Commission’s Advisory Committee on its official website in order to note the many outstanding members of the community who serve upon it, and respect their privacy by not repeating any of their names here. But it is wrong to examine the same list on the webb-site.com database in order to laugh at and highlight the fact that it includes the inevitable Bunny Chan, appointee to so many of the most tedious-sounding public bodies, and Siu Sai-wo of Sing Tao, writer of the shamelessly groveling ‘Fame and Fortune’ column in the Standard.
On the subject (while declaring the weekend open) of intruding into others’ privacy…