Internet companies reveal user data requests from Hong Kong authorities

User data requests companies received from the Hong Kong government in the first half of 2014. Photo credit: HKTR

At least seven Internet companies have published transparency reports disclosing the number of user data requests they received from law enforcement agencies in Hong Kong, shedding light on the otherwise secretive user data sharing practice between the two.

Companies said the requests they received are mostly related to criminal investigation. Between February and August in 2014, the Hong Kong police alone handled 3,884 cases of technology crime. During the same period, the police made 2,621 requests towards local and international service providers for user data, according to a government announcement.

Yahoo, Microsoft and Apple made a distinction in their reporting of requests for metadata (such as IP address, email address, login details, and transaction information) and requests for content (such as calendar, words in email and messenger, and photos), as the latter will pose a more serious threat to user privacy if abused. Yahoo disclosed some user content in response to two government requests, while Apple and Microsoft revealed none.

These companies have also posted legal guidelines for handling government requests, with most of them requiring law enforcement officers to provide sufficient legal basis to justify user data requests. Requests that are too broad or too vague will be rejected.

Twitter did not receive any data request from Hong Kong authorities last year, but received one content removal request which was made under a court order. Twitter however did not withhold the content in question.

In addition, Verizon reported the first user data request it received from Hong Kong in the second half of 2014.

With international companies leading the way, it is high time for Hong Kong’s local Internet and telecom companies to start engaging in transparency reporting by informing users of what is happening to their online data, an important step to increase corporate accountability and to build user trust.

So far 42 Internet and telecom companies around the world have published transparency reports, according to Access’ Transparency Reporting Index.

Resources

Google transparency report:

https://www.google.com/transparencyreport/userdatarequests/countries/

Yahoo transparency report:

https://transparency.yahoo.com/government-data-requests/index.htm

Microsoft transparency report:

https://www.microsoft.com/about/corporatecitizenship/en-us/reporting/transparency/

Apple transparency report:

http://images.apple.com/privacy/docs/government-information-requests-20140630.pdf

Facebook transparency report:

https://govtrequests.facebook.com/country/Hong%20Kong/2014-H1/

Twitter transparency report:

https://transparency.twitter.com/information-requests/2014/jul-dec

Verizon transparency report:

http://transparency.verizon.com/international-report

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