The HKID index: service suspended
A special message from our Founder
15th February 2013
Webb-site has this evening received an e-mail letter from Hong Kong's Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data (PCPD), stating that it has read newspaper reports about the Webb-site HKID Index and is "duty bound to examine any possible contravention of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance" (PDPO). The PCPD has also been briefing members of the media about its enquiries and theories.
Our first, internal reaction was "are you serious? For information that anyone could legally have found online?".
Webb-site always acts lawfully. All of the information in our database comes from public sources and has therefore been previously disclosed. Webb-site Who's Who (WWW) covers all HK-listed companies and their directors since 1990 (painstakingly extracted from annual reports), all members of the Government's statutory and advisory bodies, the Executive Council, the Legislative Council, the District Councils and the Election Committee, amongst others, including relationships between them and their families where publicly known. There are now over 100,000 people in WWW, plus basic information (not from behind the pay-wall) on every company registered in Hong Kong since records began in 1865, and much more besides.
All of this aims to increase transparency and accountability, and to reduce corruption, corporate fraud, money-laundering, identity fraud and other activities which are facilitated by a lack of transparency, to make conflicts of interests easier to find, and people's interests in general easier to understand.
Wherever possible, the WWW database avoids mistaken identity. The use of a unique identifier, such as a government-issued ID number or passport number, substantially reduces mistaken identity, so we include those in the database when they are already in the public domain. This will help reduce confusion with other individuals who share the same name and are in WWW now or in the future. Such a number is merely an identifier and does not convey information about a person.
It would enormously help transparency in the corporate and government world if companies, the Government and other organisations would publish the unique, lifelong Hong Kong Identity number assigned to an individual when appointing them to statutory boards and committees or granting them a license as an estate agent, accountant, SFC-licensee, HKMA-licensee and so on. Then we could all be sure who they are talking about, rather than wondering which "Chan Chi Keung" or "Yang Bin" has been appointed. ID numbers should not be regarded as secrets - they are just more accurate identifiers than names. They tell you virtually nothing about a person - they are identifiers, not personal data.
We do not collect data from individuals, and have therefore never needed to seek their consent. WWW could have been produced from any country in the world using the internet. It goes against common sense to suggest, as PCPD does, that anyone who records publicly available information is breaching the PDPO, or that they should not be able to record that information in their own publication.
It would mean that financial web sites such as Bloomberg or Reuters, with lists of directors, including personal data such as their biographies, ages and relationships to each other, or including records of their share dealings and earnings as directors, would be breaching the PDPO if they did not have the consent of the director. All of that is personal information, but it is also public information. It would also mean that online movie databases with Hong Kong actors' dates of birth and known relationships would be breaching the PDPO. It would also mean that chunks of Wikipedia, with birth dates of Hong Kong public figures and their family trees, would be breaching the PDPO. And finally, it would mean that Google itself is breaching the PDPO by holding copies of the data and indexing them so that we can all find it.
We regard the investigation by the PCPD as wholly misconceived and a threat to the freedom of speech and publication guaranteed by Article 27 of the Basic Law.
For the first time in many years, probably since our early coverage of the Cyberport, we feel threatened in our coverage of HK affairs.
Despite this, Webb-site is not-for-profit and although I heavily subsidize its running costs and commit a great deal of my time to promote transparency, accountability, and good governance in Hong Kong, I am not willing to commit vast amounts of money to a protracted legal court challenge of these principles against the virtually unlimited resources of the Government.
Accordingly, with immediate effect, the Webb-site HKID index is indefinitely suspended. We will respond to the PCPD's questions in due course, and seek to convince them that transparency of public data, and the freedom to collate it, is both legal and in the public interest. If the index never returns, you will know why.
If you want to know the exact identity of company directors, liquidators, bail-jumpers and others who were included in the index, you can hit this link to search Google for HKIDs in the US SEC documents, or this link to search Google for the Gazette notices for HKIDs, or this link to search Google for the ICAC web site. There are other sources of course. For an individual, just Google various arrangements of their full names (inside double quotes) and the word "HKID" (to avoid the Google mistyping assumption of "kid"), and you will find most of them.
A Supreme Court Justice once said that "Sunlight is the best disinfectant". This has been a dark day for transparency in Hong Kong.
David M. Webb