Community & Education Hong Kong

Telecom companies fail to provide sufficient responses to personal data requests, transparency advocates say

Major telecommunication companies in Hong Kong are failing to provide full details of their customers’ personal data when requested, advocates for information transparency have said.

Under the Personal Data Privacy Ordinance, companies that collect and use personal data are required to provide individuals with access to their personal information on request within 40 days, for little or no cost. To make this process easier, a web application called Access My Info Hong Kong was launched on April 19 so individuals could ask their telecommunication company or Internet service provider what personal data it retains about them.

Organisers at press conference revealing findings on personal information requests.

Organisers at press conference revealing findings on personal information requests. Photo: Access My Info.

Prior to the launch of the application, volunteers were asked to test its functions by sending letters to the five major telecommunication companies requesting their personal information.

Findings revealed at a press conference on Friday showed that the information provided by the companies was not satisfactory, according to advocacy officer of In-media Hong Kong Yu Yeeting.

“Although all companies responded within the required 40 days and were able to provide basic account information or call logs, they have yet to provide any of the other requested data, such as geolocation information, Internet Protocol (IP) addresses or whether the volunteers’ personal information has been disclosed to third parties, including law enforcement agencies,” said Yu.

The companies that Access My Info can generate letters to.

The companies that Access My Info can generate letters to.

Yu said only two companies – Hong Kong Broadband and Hong Kong Telecom – replied in writing to explain why they could not provide the information, while all other companies responded over the phone, even though they were required to respond in writing by law.

“In principle, users can talk to telecommunication companies again, and request the reasons why the relevant information was not provided,” said Yu. “People can also make enquires at, or ask for help from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data.”

As of Friday, 770 requests have been filed by the public using the web application. The organisations said this shows that people were concerned about how telecommunication companies were collecting, handling and sharing personal information.

Access My Info

Photo: Access My Info

At the press conference, lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching said that the application empowered citizens to exercise their personal privacy rights by simplifying the process.

She also suggested that telecommunication companies and the government should learn from other countries and publish transparency reports, in order to improve trust with their customers and increase the transparency of their practices.

Access My Info was based on an original version developed in Canada by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto and advocacy group Open Effect.

“In Canada, the Access My Info Project generated thousands of requests to Canadian telecommunication companies,” said Christopher Parsons, post-doctoral fellow at Citizen Lab.

“Access My Info helped push Canadian telecom companies to publish transparency reports for the first time and raise citizen awareness of data protection and rights.”

A more detailed academic report reviewing how Hong Kong telecom companies collect and store personal information will be published in the future.

Telecom companies fail to provide sufficient responses to personal data requests, transparency advocates say