Maybe crime does pay…

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A mobile app which discloses details on civil and criminal court cases in Hong Kong has stirred up a hotbed of controversy. Shirley Zhao hears why Do No Evil’s ‘victims’ are outraged 

The app is all wrong,” complains Michael Chen. The former gangster and drug dealer, who is trying to start a new life, is referring to Do No Evil, a mobile app which was released at the turn of the year – and has been a controversial talking point in our city ever since.

The app, which costs $1 a ‘search’, contains litigation records for individuals and companies from Hong Kong’s court and tribunal hearings dating as far back as 1990 for civil cases and 2004 for criminal cases. All you need to do is search by name or address and you have that person or firm’s history in the courts. And, for ‘victims’ like Chen, this app is morally wrong. He claims it has caused him so much trouble his life is now a mess.

Do No Evil has access to more than two million litigation records from the courts of Hong Kong. It contains a name search engine and an address search engine. Type in a name or an address and past litigation records appear on the results page. The records include partial case numbers, filing dates of court applications and court types.

Chen (not his real name) joined a local Triad gang when he was 13 years old after, he claims, he was introduced by friends who were already gangsters at that time. He was involved in gang fights and drugs and was tried in Hong Kong’s courts on multiple occasions. But, at the age of 16, with help from a youth organisation, Chen decided to quit the gang and started to look for jobs. He has been doing all sorts of odd jobs ever since as he has tried to turn his life full circle.

But now Chen’s distant past has been dredged up again, the 20-year-old claims. “One day my colleagues suddenly started to treat me strangely,” he says. “They started to distance themselves and avoid conversations with me. I didn’t know why at the beginning. I asked myself if I had done anything wrong. Then, the other day, a closer colleague of mine finally said ‘hey, I didn’t know you were a gangster before’. I was shocked because I had never told anyone about my past.”

From his colleague, Chen found out that one of his co-workers had used Do No Evil to check his records. As a result that co-worker had spread the word. “I was hurt,” says Chen. “The past has passed. I just wanted to have a new beginning. But now I feel it’s really hard to bury the past.”

Chen says he feels the app has violated his privacy. And his view is shared by others. “It will certainly affect the will of ex-juvenile offenders to correct themselves and restart,” says Dr Chui Wing-hong, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Social Work and Social Administration. “It will cause them problems when they try to integrate into society. This is why social workers always try to protect ex-juvenile offenders’ names and their records from being exposed.”

Dr Chui says the fact that the app only shows a person’s court records is even more unfair because being tried in court does not mean the person is convicted – but he alleges the app implies that the person has committed certain crimes. He also raises a few questions on the app’s legitimacy. “Does it violate the privacy ordinance?” he asks. “Is it necessary for anyone to check the personal data? Has the app asked for people’s permission in the collecting of their personal data?”

Do No Evil was developed by Hong Kong-based Brilliant United Investments Limited from July last year. When the app was introduced, the company said it does not ‘aim at invading people’s privacy’ but helps those who want to hire domestic helpers or home tutors, or those looking for tenants or business partners. It gives them a means to check their potential targets’ criminal or debt records. The company claims 3,000 active monthly users.

However, Dr Chui sees the app as unnecessary because, he says, if employers really care about potential employees’ criminal backgrounds, they can ask those potential employees to apply for a Certificate of No Criminal Conviction from the Hong Kong Police Force.

Earlier this year, Brilliant United, which was approached by Time Out for comment but failed to reply, stopped mobile users from downloading the app for a short while – however now it’s again available. Although the information provided by the app is also open to the public on the website of the Hong Kong Judiciary, Eric Cheung Tat-ming, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Professional Legal Education, says it still runs certain risks of offending the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.

According to the ordinance, personal data shall only be collected when that information is collected for lawful purposes directly related to the collectors’ activities. That data collection must also be ‘necessary’, the data concerned must be ‘adequate but not excessive’, the means of collection must be lawful and fair, and the person to which the data concerns is informed of the collection.

Cheung says those who use the app could violate certain principles of the ordinance when it comes to the ‘purpose’ of the search. Maybe, he says, they could also do so during the process of data collection itself. He suggests that those who feel their privacy has been intruded should file complaints to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data. “The commissioners are the ones to decide if there is a case or not,” says Cheung.

A spokesman for the PCPD says that the office has received enquiries related to the app but has not actually received any complaint per se – and the spokesman adds that the office will not make any comment until it knows the precise details of the circumstances of a specific complaint.

Another person, who wants to remain nameless, says she is worried her reputation ‘could be hurt’ because she has the same name as some of the people who have court records. “My friend told me about this app,” she says. “I ran a search with my name just for fun but found there are court records under the name. I felt very uncomfortable about that.”

“I don’t think such cases [where people’s reputation is damaged] will appear soon,” says Cheung. “But if people do feel they’ve been intruded upon, their first step should always be to file a complaint or look for professional consultancy.”

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