Officials have said they had no knowledge of laptops – containing the personal data of all 3.78 million voters – being brought to a chief executive election backup polling station.

The Registration and Electoral Office (REO) recently lost two election laptops at the AsiaWorld-Expo site on Lantau. The discovery was made on March 27, a day after the election, prompting criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum.

The machines were later revealed to have been stored in a locked room, but there was no one guarding them, nor were there signs of a break-in.

chief executive election 2017 John Tsang, Carrie Lam and Woo Kwok-hing
Photo: HKFP.

Although data for all voters was stored on the laptops, only 1,194 election committee members had the right to vote in the 2017 chief executive election.

‘No knowledge’

At a special meeting at the legislature over the incident on Tuesday, Principal Electoral Officer Candy Ma Siu-hung, Chief Electoral Officer Wong See-man and Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam Chi-yuen all said they have no knowledge of the information being brought to Asia World-Expo.

Ma refused to reveal the rank of officers responsible on the basis that an investigation was underway.

Wong said there may have been staff members who took the computers to the site without any approval from their superiors.

“Not that I want to shift responsibility, of course I am responsible, but I have no knowledge of the system being used in the chief executive election,” Wong said.

Chief Electoral Officer Wong See-man
Chief Electoral Officer Wong See-man. Photo: GovHK.

Security measures 

Wong said there were 32 computers in the room and six of them contained information associated with all voters. They were stored in different spots in the room, and the two which went missing were kept on top of a paper box.

Wong said there was an electronic lock on the door of the room and two REO staff members had an access card. Security matters were arranged by AsiaWorld-Expo. After staff members left the site every day, the security room suspended the use of the cards temporarily.

He did not give a direct answer as to whether he could provide detailed records of entries into the room. He only said the room was used mainly by around ten government executive officers and election assistants.

He also said five people knew the password to the system which holds the information for all voters.

Raymond Tam
Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam Chi-yuen visiting the Registration and Electoral Office for the chief executive election. File Photo: GovHK.

Not necessary

Secretary Tam, calling it “a theft behind closed doors,” apologised to affected voters at the meeting for the inconvenience caused.

He said that there was “no need” to bring the system which contained information of all voters, as polling station officers should check the identity of chief executive electors by phone.

He stressed that if there was any evidence the REO staff members broke internal rules or any regulations, the REO will take disciplinary actions according to procedures.

The LegCo passed a non-binding motion condemning the REO, supported by both the pro-democracy camp and the pro-Beijing camp. It urged officials to take responsibility and fully adopt measures to fix the issue.

Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok Wing-hang, alongside several colleagues representing professional sectors, said they would not rule out taking legal action against the REO for negligence on behalf of all voters.

People Power party lawmaker Ray Chan Chi-chuen said the incident was like “bringing all your property to a tea gathering.”

Justice Barnabas Fung Wah
Justice Barnabas Fung Wah (centre). Photo: GovHK.

Lack of awareness

The Electoral Affairs Commission, an independent body headed by a judge, said in a statement on Tuesday that it considers the REO’s arrangements in storing the computers at the backup site to be “highly undesirable. ”

“[It] created a security risk for the information concerned, and suggests a lack of awareness,” it said.

It said the REO should learn its lesson, follow-up seriously on the incident and explore improvement measures.

The Office of Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data has also decided to launch an investigation. It was awaiting the REO’s response to enquiries.

The office said it has received over 2,000 complaints related to the incident.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.