Finally, protection for personal data
Thu, Feb 17, 2011
my paper

By Kenny Chee

WITH new data-protection legislation likely to be introduced next year, frazzled Singapore consumers need not worry that much about their personal details being shared with telemarketers without their knowledge.

This is good news for consumers like research manager Elaine Chow, 29. She has been receiving unsolicited phone calls from people trying to sell her things for 10 years.

Ms Chow told my paper yesterday that she had not given her name or contact details to many of these callers. She suspects that her personal particulars, which she has included in several lucky draw and feedback forms, must have been passed on to third parties.

Short of changing her phone number and putting up with the attendant inconveniences, Ms Chow is helpless. "It's about time that something is done," she said.

Media lawyers said cases like Ms Chow's recur because there are no general privacy laws here, except in specific instances like protecting the data of telco and bank customers.

But this could well change.

On Monday, Mr Lui Tuck Yew, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, said in a written parliamentary reply that a proposed data-protection law would be introduced "to curb excessive and unnecessary collection of individuals' personal data by businesses".

He said that this would, among other things, require getting consent from people to disclose their personal data.

Mr Bryan Tan, a technology partner with Keystone Law Corporation, believes the new legislation will not allow collection of irrelevant information, like a person's salary for the purpose of filling up lucky draw forms.

He expects the law to regulate how details collected are used, too. For example, some firms bury details in the fine print of lucky-draw forms saying that consumers automatically consent to have their personal information given to third parties, or to be used by the firms to call the consumers to sell other products.

But under the new law, these firms could be prohibited from doing so, and would instead have to seek consent from consumers upfront.

Mr Tan said another area the law will have to take into account is how and what data can be stored and protected. For example, it has to assess whether a photo of someone taken in public qualifies for protection.

The absence of privacy laws has also made Singapore's dataservice industries less competitive.

Mr Daniel Lim, director of Stamford Law Corporation, said many jurisdictions have dataprotection laws that restrict the transfer of data hosted in those places to countries with no such laws, like Singapore.

He said this explains why Mr Lui said the new law would "enhance Singapore's overall competitiveness and strengthen our position as a trusted hub for businesses and a choice location for global data-management and processing services".

But Mr Lim said the proposed legislation "has been over 10 years in the making", although a non-legally binding e-commerce code for protecting personal information has been in place since 1998.

In contrast, jurisdictions like those in New Zealand have had a Privacy Act since 1993, while South Korea has had an Act on information protection for almost 10 years.

The reason Singapore is so slow in catching up? The added business costs of complying with the new law, said Mr Lim.

Mr Tan said another reason could be that Singapore has no culture of privacy protection.

But with more databases on consumer data being created, such as smartphones apps collecting user data, a data-protection law would become increasingly vital to safeguard everyone, he added.

For more my paper stories click here.

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