As if there weren’t enough privacy scares in this age of hacking and data leaks, some Chinese citizens have found their personal information published on local government websites.
The provincial government of Anhui, in eastern China, issued a notice Thursday urging local governments to review their websites to avoid publishing residents’ ID numbers or contact details. The announcement advised that government publications on poverty alleviation, welfare allocation, and other services must be carefully inspected to avoid disclosing recipients’ personal information. ID numbers, addresses, and phone numbers must be redacted.
Thursday’s announcement follows numerous media reports that found databases of personal information freely available on government websites. Some leaked the information of residents who had used confidential and sensitive public services such as mental illness support or pre-pregnancy medical examinations.
The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication, reported Thursday that the municipal government of Tongling, a city in southern Anhui, had repeatedly published personal information. On Aug. 24, the city released details of 42 patients receiving mental health services for low-income households. The document revealed each patient’s name, gender, and diagnosis: Conditions included depression, schizophrenia, and developmental disorders. A week later, the government published confidential information relating to other services.
Jiangxi, a neighboring province, has seen similar issues, with government bureaus publishing the names, ID numbers, and phone numbers of students and graduates who had received government allowances. A labor bureau employee told The Paper that they had released the details to confirm each recipient’s identity in case there were other applicants with the same name.
Shanghai-based lawyer Ding Jinkun told Sixth Tone that such incidents violated citizens’ privacy. “Though it’s necessary to publish information for transparency, governments need to address citizens’ confidentiality,” said Ding, a lawyer at DeBund Law Offices. He added that to his knowledge there are no specific regulations on how to handle personal information, for example which details need to be coded or mosaicked.
Online, opinion has been divided on the issue. Some believe such disclosures infringe on citizens’ privacy and ought to be illegal, while others have asked whether redacting personal information will lead to less transparency for government services. Activists already criticize the public disclosure system for delayed responses to freedom of information requests.
Chinese governments at all levels have been promising more transparent systems. Since May 2008, regulations on disclosure of government information have stipulated that authorities must publish information such as budgets and expenditures, subsidies and allowances, and environmental statistics. However, the regulation states that information involving state secrets, confidential business interests, and personal privacy should not be disclosed — unless it is deemed to be “in the public interest.”
In February, an official in southern China’s Hainan province was punished for failing to update a government website regularly, in the first case of disciplinary action against a civil servant over information transparency. According to the central government, a recent spot check found that 36 government websites — out of more than 500 — still have “notable problems.”
Editor: Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: Ingram/VCG)