A Matter of Privacy

This is my translation of an op-ed piece in Southern Metropolis:-

“One crucial piece of information was revealed in the March 15 CCTV night gala: that a wireless communication technology company (分眾無線傳媒技術有限公司) has in its possession the personal data of half of China’s 500 million mobile phone users. The said company has also conducted detailed analysis of such data, including users’ sex, age, purchasing power etc. Based on the information thus compiled, the company’s Zhengzhou branch alone has been able to send out 200 million pieces of junk mail to users via SMS on a daily basis.

Just one single enterprise possesses the personal data of over 200 million people. Such a startling fact has underscored what the public has for a long time been worried about on the issue of personal data protection. It also goes some way to showing that unauthorized disclosure and transmission of personal data has gone beyond the stage of petty disputes – it has become a professional, organized and commercialized operation, which is instilling fear in individuals.

Outside of the country, public information is omnipresent while personal information is stringently guarded. In China, the situation is exactly the opposite. One has to mobilize all kinds of resources in order to obtain public information, but to obtain personal information cannot be easier – just by paying a dollar one can get one’s hand on the personal information of tens of millions of people. Staff recruitment units would require you to fill in personal data forms; after you’ve purchased a home, all the construction material suppliers, the moving companies etc. will approach you; after a baby is born, the baby products retailers will jam your phone line; if your computer is infected with the Trojan Horse virus, your important personal information such as bank account number and mail box password etc. will easily be collected by a third party.

The reckless stealing and transmission of personal information means that for many people, there is no privacy at all, and they are just like “transparent” beings. In light of this situation, some Congress representatives and committee members have reiterated the need to protect personal information at this year’s Party Congress and Politburo Committee meeting. One representative even went as far as calling for criminal indictment of offenders. As a matter of fact, calls for legislating the protection of personal information emerged as far back as 2005, when a draft of the “Protection of Personal Information Bill” was presented by the relevant department. However, three years have lapsed and the bill is still on the shelf.

Why has the legislating process not been prioritized and has been stalled for years? What it amounts to is not really a matter of technical problem, but rather a misconception. In other words, the public rights department has not attached a suitable degree of importance to the issue. As far as that department is concerned, only an administrative need would justify taking any action on the concern about personal information. It means that what they emphasize is an individual’s duty to provide personal information, but the individual’s right regarding his/her own personal information is often ignored.

Personal information is a privacy matter. And privacy is a basic human right that a citizen should have. Right to privacy ranks in equal importance with freedom of movement, property right and reputation right and it should not be treated with slight. Besides, the right to privacy is a prerequisite to realizing other kinds of rights. Just imagine, without privacy, other people can get access to information like your home address – what guarantee do you have about your private property right? Likewise, without privacy, your reputation right would also be more fragile.

When a person’s money or belongings have been stolen, the pain may be only temporary. But when a person’s private information has been circulated and even bargained for, would the fear and anguish this brings only linger for a day or two? Money lost can still be recovered. But could lost personal information ever be redeemed? To say that stealing personal information is a bigger crime than stealing money is not an exaggeration.

Therefore, we should protect an individual’s personal information the way we protect his/her personal belongings. As for protection of personal property, we have a legal framework that is complete, systematic and strong. However when it comes to protection of personal information, the relevant laws are piecemeal, scattered, and not operational. This situation is hardly in sync with the spirit of the Constitution that claims the nation respects and guarantees human rights.

One only hopes that, with the revelation of the case of over 200 million mobile phone users’ personal information being leaked, this civic right damaging incident will become the catalyst in the push for passing the relevant law.”