Hong Kong car owners will be told if their personal details have been accessed on a government database under a new service launched two months after a journalist was prosecuted for making a false statement while searching for such information for news reporting.
While a Transport Department spokeswoman said on Monday the free service would allow vehicle owners to “take precautionary measures” against abuse of their personal information, journalists and media scholars warned the move could further restrict investigative reporting by tipping off parties at an early stage.
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In November, the prosecution of a freelance journalist who searched for vehicle information for an RTHK programme sparked widespread condemnation among media groups, scholars and opposition politicians, who accused police of using the law to suppress normal reporting activities.
Currently, the public can obtain a car owner’s personal details including name, address and identity card number by accessing the Certificate of Particulars of Motor Vehicle via the department’s website.
Those who apply for access need to fill out an online application form including name, organisation and address.
But the department said car owners could now register for the free service and get an email notification – containing the applicants’ information – whenever their personal details had been disclosed to a third party.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) accused the department of “further attempting to suppress investigative journalism” and urged the government to exempt news reporting from the service.
“It will easily tip off public figures who are being investigated by journalists, which we worry will restrict reporters’ work in the future. Some of these reports could be of significant public interest,” HKJA chairman Chris Yeung Kin-hing said.
But barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung welcomed the move, which he believed could better protect car owners’ personal data from misuse for unlawful purposes such as blackmail or fraud.
“Even if car owners wanted to proceed with legal action … such as applying for an injunction over the use of such data, sound reasons would be required. For media organisations, as the fourth estate, there should be a right for them to conduct such searches,” he said.
In a reply to the Post, the department said the applicants’ personal particulars, including their name, and the purpose, time and date of the search would be listed for the car owner.
“The new service was in response to personal details obtained through the certificate potentially being used for unlawful or inappropriate actions. Some car owners had also raised concerns to us before over the protection of personal data,” a spokeswoman said.
“If car owners suspect such information is being misused, they can seek help from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data or call police.”
The department said 14 applications for the service had been received since it was rolled out last Saturday.
Journalists have often used car owners’ details while reporting on accidents or for exposing those behind unlawful acts, but recent developments have cast a shadow over their use of such information.
Last November, RTHK contributor Bao Choy Yuk-ling, who co-produced an episode of a documentary on the Yuen Long mob attack of July 21, 2019, was arrested by police and prosecuted over making false statements under the Road Traffic Ordinance.
Choy was accused of using the information she obtained for a purpose not aligning with “other traffic and transport related matters”, which she stated as her reason when applying for access. A guilty verdict could land her behind bars for up to six months.
News reporting is not an available option on the department website. The other two options available for search purposes are “legal proceedings” and “sale and purchase of vehicles”.
Yeung, of the HKJA, also reiterated calls for the department to add news reporting as an option to reduce the risks of journalists being exposed.
Chinese University lecturer Grace Leung Lai-kuen, of the school of journalism and communication, questioned if the department’s move was an attempt to further restrict press freedom, saying the latest changes had undermined the spirit of public accountability.
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