A top Hong Kong official has apologised after two laptops containing private information belonging to all 3.78 million registered voters went missing during March’s chief executive election.

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam said that the Registration and Electoral Office (REO) would learn a lesson from the incident. The two machines were discovered to have disappeared from a locked room at an AsiaWorld Expo backup polling station, despite there being no sign of a break-in.

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau Raymond Tam Chi-yuen
Raymond Tam. screenshot.

“Regarding the inconvenience and concern that [the incident] has caused voters, I represent the REO in expressing my sincere apologies to the public,” said Tam at a Tuesday press conference.

A bureau task force published a report on the suspected theft of the laptops on Tuesday, making recommendations in the aspects of security and training in the REO.

“We think the REO needs to strengthen its guidelines, assessment and training given its specific nature,” said the bureau’s deputy secretary Rosanna Law. “During election cycles, a large number of colleagues join the REO.”

‘Was it necessary?’

Law said that the storage of private electoral information on mobile devices should be subject to formal approval. “The most fundamental question is: Was it necessary to store such a large amount of voter data on a mobile device taken to a backup polling station?”

She said that the REO should liaise with the police in providing security at polling stations, but added that the encryption of the laptops made it difficult to access the data.

Secretary Tam said that the police investigation into the incident is facing difficulties: “The relevant location – Room 107 – does not have closed-circuit television installed, which means that we have to rely on different methods instead of video tapes to identify any suspicious individuals.”

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

He added that the Civil Service Bureau – and not his own task force – would be responsible for initiating any disciplinary proceedings against REO personnel.

IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok criticised Tam, however, saying that he and his bureau should not shrug off responsibility to the REO and its junior frontline staff. He added that Tam should continue to take responsibility even if he leaves government following the change of administration this summer.

See also: Privacy commissioner slams election office’s treatment of voter data following missing laptop incident

On Monday, Hong Kong’s Privacy Commissioner also criticised the REO in its own report, saying that the office’s security measures were not proportional to the sensitivity of the data in the laptops.

Though the information of all 3.78 million voters in Hong Kong were stored in the REO’s laptops, only 1,200 specified electors were eligible to vote for the chief executive in March. Former chief secretary Carrie Lam won the small-circle election with 777 votes.

Following the disappearance of the laptops, the REO sent some 3 million paper-copy letters of apology to all affected voters.

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.