A long-time government lawyer appointed to head Hong Kong’s privacy watchdog will inherit new challenges as she steps into the job in September, including the impact of the national security law on the protection of personal data.
Ada Chung Lai-ling, 61, was named by city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Friday to a five-year term as the privacy commissioner for personal data, effective September 4.
Currently Hong Kong’s registrar of companies, Chung brings “solid legal expertise and administrative experience” to the job, according to the government, and participated in the high-profile rewrite of the city’s Companies Ordinance in 2014.
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She succeeds Stephen Wong Kai-yi, whose term expires on August 3.
Chung joined the government as an assistant tax assessor in 1981. She was called to the bar in England in 1988 before assuming a variety of local posts including principal government counsel for the Department of Justice and deputy law officer of the civil division.
The commissioner’s office oversees the enforcement of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance (PDPO), which governs the collection, handling and use of personal data.
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Craig Choy Ki of the Progressive Lawyers Group said he believed one of the challenges facing the watchdog now was that its power could be overridden by the sweeping new national security law Beijing imposed on the city last month.
The law, adopted on June 30, criminalises subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security.
The legislation has granted police extensive new powers to investigate national security cases, including the ability to search premises and electronic devices as well as intercept electronic communications and conduct covert surveillance with only the chief executive’s approval rather than a court warrant.
The national security law will prevail if there is any conflict between [it] and local laws, including the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance
Craig Choy Ki, Progressive Lawyers Group
“The national security law will prevail if there is any conflict between [it] and local laws, including the PDPO,” Choy said.
“The risk could be very high. For example, if the government or police are prosecuting someone under the national security law, all these protections under the privacy law will not be able to protect anyone in Hong Kong.”
Choy emphasised that the city’s data privacy laws lack provisions covering the protection of cross-border information transfers to outside jurisdictions, including to mainland China.
Last year, local authorities said they planned to give the privacy watchdog power to launch criminal investigations and prosecutions over doxxing. Outgoing commissioner Wong dealt with a 75-fold increase in such complaints during last year’s anti-government protests, in which leaking personal data became a weapon used to target opponents from both sides, including numerous police officers.
The watchdog and the government are now working on a review and considering legal amendments to enhance its authority to tackle the problem.
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Stuart Hargreaves, associate professor at Chinese University’s Faculty of Law, said the privacy commissioner’s powers are relatively weak as they stand.
“[The watchdog] can conduct ‘investigations’ into whether the PDPO has been breached, but [its] remedial powers are limited to issuing enforcement notices or recommending prosecution to the police for certain breaches of the ordinance or failure to comply with an enforcement notice,” he said.
Hargreaves said he believed the new commissioner’s most important task would be to modernise Hong Kong’s data privacy law, which has not been substantially updated since 1995 beyond some provisions dealing with direct marketing offences.
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