It’s no se­cret: Data pri­vacy isn’t that big a deal in China

Irish Independent - Business Week - - TECHNOLOGY - Adam Min­ter

FOR a few days last week, China ap­peared to have its own, slow­mo­tion Wik­ileaks. Via Twit­ter, some­one us­ing the han­dle @shen­fen­zheng leaked per­sonal in­for­ma­tion – such as home ad­dresses and ID num­bers – of some of China’s most pow­er­ful com­mer­cial and gov­ern­ment fig­ures, in­clud­ing Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Wanda Group’s Wang Jian­lin and Ten­cent’s Pony Ma.

It was an au­da­cious stunt, but the leaker was clear that it had a higher pur­pose: “I hope this en­cour­ages the na­tion’s scru­tiny, and shows how worth­less in­di­vid­ual data is in China,” he (or she) wrote be­fore the ac­count was sus­pended.

There’s good rea­son to be con­cerned: China is the world’s largest mar­ket for on­line and phone scams, many of which take ad­van­tage of the coun­try’s lax laws and pro­tec­tions for per­sonal in­for­ma­tion.

Yet de­spite these and other re­cent scan­dals, on­line pri­vacy re­mains a low pri­or­ity in China, for in­ter­net users and com­pa­nies alike. And this scan­dal – like much big­ger data breaches that pre­ceded it – is un­likely to scare very many peo­ple into greater vig­i­lance.

When it comes to pri­vacy, China’s in­ter­net users are global out­liers. In 2013, only 50pc of them be­lieved they had to be cau­tious when shar­ing per­sonal in­for­ma­tion on­line, com­pared with 83pc of those in the US.

Yet Chi­nese in­ter­net users con­tend with many – if not more – of the on­line threats that plague web users world­wide, and they of­ten seem all too will­ing to trade pri­vate data for ac­cess to ser­vices and sites that of­fer lit­tle pro­tec­tion for it.

So what ac­counts for the dis­crep­ancy?

The very con­cept of pri­vacy, espe­cially as it’s un­der­stood in the West, didn’t re­ally ar­rive in China un­til the 20th cen­tury.

And even then, tight liv­ing quar­ters, multi-gen­er­a­tional homes and, above all, the pre­rog­a­tives of au­to­cratic gov­ern­ments – which praised col­lec­tive rights over per­sonal ones – meant that pri­vacy was a luxury very few Chi­nese en­joyed. China’s great mi­gra­tion on­line didn’t change this sit­u­a­tion much.

When anony­mous crit­ics of the gov­ern­ment emerged on the web, the author­i­ties at­tempted to get the coun­try’s hun­dreds of mil­lions of in­ter­net users to re­veal their real names when reg­is­ter­ing for on­line ac­counts.

That ef­fort hasn’t en­tirely suc­ceeded, but it has of­fered an im­por­tant re­minder that there’s no pre­sump­tion of pri­vacy in Com­mu­nist China.

The gov­ern­ment, in the­ory, knows all.

China’s tech gi­ants also show lit­tle in­ter­est in pri­vacy.

Terms of ser­vice at Alibaba and Ten­cent (owner of WeChat) give the com­pa­nies carte blanche to use cus­tomer data pretty much as they please.

So far, the Twit­ter scan­dal isn’t spurring a move­ment to change those poli­cies.

But as e- com­merce and on­line fi­nance ex­pand in China, an in­dif­fer­ent at­ti­tude to­ward pri­vacy will be­come more of a li­a­bil­ity.

After all, e- com­merce isn’t just about ex­chang­ing money; it’s also about ex­chang­ing the per­sonal in­for­ma­tion as­so­ci­ated with that money.

China’s in­ter­net users may not hold pri­vacy as dear as their Amer­i­can or Euro­pean coun­ter­parts, but when it comes to the sanc­tity of one’s check­ing ac­count, the world is gen­er­ally f lat.

If Alibaba and Ten­cent can’t guar­an­tee that your bank ac­count is safe, then you’re prob­a­bly not go­ing to link it to their ser­vices.

China’s gov­ern­ment, con­strained by its de­sire to know as much as pos­si­ble about its ci­ti­zens, has none­the­less taken some im­por­tant steps re­cently, such as adopt­ing a data pri­vacy law and putting tougher cy­ber­se­cu­rity mea­sures in place.

But en­force­ment re­mains sketchy, and con­sumers have few ways to com­plain or ob­tain com­pen­sa­tion if their data is mis­used.

That leaves e- com­merce com­pa­nies to fill the gap. They could cer­tainly im­prove their pri­vacy stan­dards, espe­cially by re­strict­ing how they share per­sonal user data and by adopt­ing more se­cure com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­to­cols (such as HTTPS).

But far more im­por­tant would be an ef­fort to ed­u­cate their users about the dan­gers of iden­tity theft, and about what com­pa­nies can – and can­not – do to pro­tect them.

That kind of in­for­ma­tion, which Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans of­ten take for granted, is rare in China.

Mak­ing it less so would im­prove e- com­merce mea­sur­ably, while help­ing en­sure that the ti­tans of the Chi­nese in­ter­net never again find their home ad­dresses posted to Twit­ter. (Bloomberg View)

The very con­cept of pri­vacy, espe­cially as it’s un­der­stood in the West, didn’t re­ally ar­rive in China un­til the 20th cen­tury

Leak­ing of de­tails high­lighted the cul­tural dif­fer­ence be­tween the Asian gi­ant and the United States or Europe about pri­vacy

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