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Allen Chiang made great strides as Hong Kong’s Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data (PCPD). By implementing and supporting such efforts as the Privacy Management Programme and the Data Protection Officers’ Club, celebrating 15 years of existence this year, Chiang built on the work of the likes of Roderick Woo and helped to establish Hong Kong as the most active privacy regime in Asia.

In fact, 86 percent of Hong Kong residents recently agreed that the PCPD “has increased community awareness of personal data privacy issues after the Octopus Incident in 2010.” 

However, after entering office amidst the Octopus firestorm and producing guidance on issues like smartphone privacy, fingerprint data, public registers and cloud computing right up to the day of his departure, Chiang on August 3 handed over the keys to his office to Stephen Wong, who now assumes the position of PCPD or the next five years.

Wong is no stranger to pressure-packed offices. He worked for 10 years in the public prosecutor’s office early in his career, tackling murder cases and high-level white-collar crime, before moving into human rights law and helping to pass the 1991 Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance. Most recently, he has been working in private practice and with the Law Reform Commission of Hong Kong.

This has prepared him well for the commissioner’s office, Wong said over the phone from his office in Hong Kong. He called advocating for human rights principles “a similar experience” to the one he’s expecting as PCPD.

format_quoteHong Kong’s success depends very much on our core values, one of which is freedom of speech, freedom of expression and the free flow of information. That’s critical to open society.

“Individuals are excited about the basic fundamental human rights in the protection of their personal data in particular,” he said. But “not many people understand the limitations and qualifications of human rights. This is not an absolute right. There are qualifications and exceptions in our statute and law. People tend to talk about their rights more than their duties … This is one thing I will have to look at during the first year and months of my new career here.”

“The overriding principle and consideration,” he emphasized, “is we’re trying to protect individuals’ rights without compromising the other valuable core message or principle, which is the free flow of information.”

He emphasized Hong Kong’s role in the global marketplace and the vital part of that role played by information’s free flow. “We take pride in being the leading business center and leading commercial hub,” he said. “Hong Kong’s success depends very much on our core values, one of which is freedom of speech, freedom of expression and the free flow of information. That’s critical to open society. It is the intellectual oxygen for freedom, knowledge and economic growth … We will try to preserve and advance all of these values, and that’s why I always will bear in mind the free flow of information that makes Hong Kong a world city.

“Personal information is used by all businesses in the digital age,” he continued. “The collection and the storage of information are essential to a globalized world. The transport of data is part of our daily lives, and that’s why we have a provision governing the transfer of data from one place to another. This is something that we will continue to preserve, but there is somewhere where we have to draw a line. We have to do all of this without adversely impacting the individual’s privacy rights.”

Vital in this effort, he said, will be education. Wong noted that there are more than 1.5 mobile phones for every person in Hong Kong and that he is going to continue to be invested in efforts like GPEN’s 2015 year of youth privacy and 2014’s app privacy sweeps. “We’re trying to bring home the message of privacy protection in particular to parents and teachers and their students,” Wong said. Specifically, the confluence of the Internet of Things and wearable technology is worrisome, as it create the possibility of so many devices constantly tracking individuals.

Further, he noted the mandate to education business that lies in his office’s charter. “We have to follow up on the education on compliance,” he said, “and move the emphasis from compliance to accountability, with a view toward attaining the ultimate objective: That organizations, including the government, would see privacy not as a liability but as an accent, an added value, so that they are not scared of implementing the Privacy Management Programme.”

“They should be,” he said, “proud to be a successful protector of personal data.”

format_quoteWe want informed consent. Full informed consent. Well-informed consent.

Should that happen, Wong said, Hong Kong will have the ability to unlock all the potential of that wearable technology, for advances in areas like healthcare, personal fitness and scientific research. “The challenge,” he said, “is to make sure it’s not impacting anyone in a negative or significant way … It’s a balance-striking exercise.”

To that end, Wong said, “We’d like to see if we could continue to play a leading role in drawing a proper line, where individuals’ rights could be protected, but at the same time, the general interests of the community could benefit.” In a city where announcements are made in the subway stations to remind people not to look at their phones while on the escalator, “personal data will be one of the key issues” for society to grapple with going forward.

“That’s why,” Wong said, “we’d like to promote the transparency of these privacy policies so that people can really understand what they’re getting into. We want informed consent. Full informed consent. Well-informed consent.”

1 Comment

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  • comment Justin • Aug 27, 2015
    We appreciate the coverage of our region Sam! I'm looking forward to following Hong Kong's continued engagement on the global stage,  aligning to global regulatory trends in key trading territories. Mr. Wong's pragmatism and sensitivity to the import of free information flows is very encouraging.