Employees of a major Macau casino are “secretly” being monitored and manipulated online under a deal struck between the company and a Hong Kong-based digital marketing firm, the Post has learned.
The discreet arrangement – which casino staff have claimed is an affront to personal privacy rights and tantamount to a spying operation – is between Hong Kong stock exchange-listed Galaxy Entertainment Group and locally registered company YouFind.
Internal company documents obtained by the Post give details of an operation to weed out online comments or narratives detrimental to the image of Galaxy and “create positive comments in Facebook groups etc” to “neutralise” negativity.
In practice, this involved YouFind using various online profiles to find and contradict online posts which could make the company look bad, and spread positive news about it.
The “monitoring” and “seeding” operation – which Galaxy said accorded with “entirely standard global industry practice” – was, according to sources familiar with the matter, contractually agreed on. The process bypassed normal procurement procedures and is in direct response to a deluge of online criticism Galaxy faced in the wake of Typhoon Hato almost a year ago.
Last August, Hato ravaged the former Portuguese enclave, killing 16 people. Soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army were deployed in clean-up efforts to get the city up and running again after the worst storm in decades brought it to a virtual standstill.
In February Galaxy put in place a special bonus arrangement after hundreds of employees lodged complaints with Macau’s Labour Affairs Bureau over working conditions during the storm.
An online security and data privacy protection expert described the deal as “the tip of a very big and very worrying iceberg”, and Hong Kong’s privacy commissioner for personal data Stephen Wong Kai-yi said he was monitoring the case.
According to the office of the commissioner, both companies are obliged to follow Hong Kong privacy laws, even though the monitoring is in Macau and of employees there.
This has not been done, according to casino staff and gaming employee unions. Galaxy Entertainment Group insisted it did nothing wrong but did not answer specific questions about its legal obligation to inform staff.
One Galaxy employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, compared the move to the Cambridge Analytica scandal earlier this year, when it was revealed that the Facebook data of millions of people worldwide had been accessed by highly questionable means.
“Many local users don’t fully understand how to make sure their posts are only seen by friends. I am very upset about my employer being able to spy on my private conversations and identify any bad comments about Galaxy behind my back,” the employee said.
“Gossip is normal and so is expressing opinions. We should not be spied on by our employer and have the details of our views twisted and faked.
Gossip is normal and so is expressing opinions. We should not be spied on by our employer and have the details of our views twisted and faked
“Pretending to be a normal person when you are not, to make a conversation in favour of the employer, is very worrying. I read about this concerning [US President Donald Trump]. Is this happening in Macau?”
Another employee, who also requested anonymity, said: “Galaxy are very worried about their reputation after their response to Typhoon Hato. But this seems too much, it’s like Cambridge Analytica, and I think it is against me in terms of privacy and the right to speak my opinion, and not have it twisted by made-up people online.”
Sources said the contract over online activity was sealed by senior Galaxy executives after negotiations with YouFind, and work on the monitoring project began over the past two months.
“It was absolutely a secret contract, normal procedures were not followed,” a source said. “If it is all ethical, above board and in complete compliance with all the necessary laws, why all the secrecy?”
In a statement released on Wednesday, a representative of the organisation said: “In accordance with entirely standard global industry practice, Galaxy Entertainment Group has appointed outsourcing suppliers to provide social media marketing services to GEG in order to measure and enhance the group’s online social media presence.
“GEG has not and will not authorise any illegal use of social media. GEG proactively fulfils its social responsibilities and strives to ensure that the conduct of its business complies with the laws of [Macau and Hong Kong].
“GEG is unable to disclose any specific information about its vendors due to confidentiality arrangements with those vendors ... which GEG has a duty to protect.”
Cloee Chao, president of the New Macau Gaming Staff Rights Association, said: “I knew nothing about this and have checked with colleagues, and they also don’t know.”
Michael Gazeley of Hong Kong-based Network Box, a company specialising in online security, described the case as “the very worrying tip of a very big iceberg”.
He said: “If the employer was just monitoring what was being said about it and having an employee or marketing firm present its own side of various issues, then that’s fine. Many companies do this now.
“If on the other hand, the ‘people’ presenting the employer’s case were pretending to be third parties, that’s perhaps not so fine.”
Besides Hong Kong, Gazeley’s firm has security operation centres in the United States, New Zealand, mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia.
On its website, YouFind – whose head office is in Ngau Tau Kok – describes itself as “an interactive digital marketing agency” and a “passionate marketer that delivers online solutions by providing smart thinking and smart strategies”.
The website makes no mention of the “neutralising” services and “seeding” of “created” positive comments referred to in the internal documents.
Despite numerous attempts to contact YouFind, the company did not respond.
A spokesman for Hong Kong’s privacy watchdog said: “The privacy commissioner for personal data will continue to monitor the development of the case and will take necessary actions as and when proper and appropriate.
“If anyone suspects that his privacy rights relating to personal data are being encroached or abused, he should nevertheless consider raising the concern with the [suspected] individuals or organisations.”
The spokesman added that complaints could also be lodged with the watchdog.
Last month, police in Shanghai busted what they said was a gang that duped websites into deleting negative reviews by posing as government censors and media personnel. In late 2016, the group started advertising its services to companies wanting criticism of their firms scrubbed from the internet, according to Shanghai authorities.
Deleting articles for cash is illegal in mainland China but is estimated to be a 100 million yuan (US$15.5 million) industry, according to state-run China Discipline and Supervision News.