The Privacy Commissioner has said that the government’s use of staff members to collect information on lawmakers’ whereabouts does not constitute unfair or unlawful collection of personal data.

The role of government officials assigned to keep track of lawmakers in the legislative council building came under scrutiny after lawmaker Ted Hui snatched a civil servant’s phone last week in the hope of learning what information the officers retained.

Ted Hui
Ted Hui. Photo: In-Media.

The staff members are commonly known to lawmakers as “government paparazzi,” and their duties include calling lawmakers to ensure a quorum at meetings.

Hui asked the Privacy Commissioner’s office for an explanation after it stated that the government’s use of staff to monitor lawmakers’ movements in the legislative building did not violate the privacy ordinance.

Among other points, he asked the Commissioner to explain whether it was necessary and relevant for the government to monitor lawmakers’ movements, and whether it was fair for the government to track lawmakers without first obtaining consent.

Information ‘not sensitive’ 

Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data Stephen Wong Kai-yi responded to Hui’s enquiries on Wednesday in a point-by-point response, saying that the role of the officers helped “senior government officials to ensure that motions can be discussed in a timely manner.”

He also said that the office contacted the government to understand their role, and found that the officers only recorded the movements of lawmakers in the public areas of the legislative building, which is not sensitive information.

stephen wong kai yi
Commissioner Stephen Wong Kai-yi. Photo: Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data.

The statement said that the officers’ duties do not constitute unfair or unlawful collection of personal data as their activities were related to important public interest, and the setting was not a location where lawmakers would have a high expectation of privacy.

Wong also said that the privacy ordinance stipulates that those collecting data must do so lawfully and fairly, but does not specify that they must first obtain consent. He said that it was not unreasonable for the government to retain the data for six months as it was not sensitive information.

Wong emphasised that any persons obtaining personal data through unfair or unlawful means without the consent of the party involved or without reasonable doubt “cannot use privacy as a shield” to justify their use or disclosure of the data unless it is exempted by the privacy ordinance – such as in the prevention or investigation of a crime.

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.