Disclosure of personal data a trend getting out of control

08:20, July 09, 2010      

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The Chinese identity card looks just like any other: It is the right size, has the right symbols and carries the person's image and personal details.

The only thing unusual about it is the fact that the card has Barack Obama on it.

Images of the United States president's faked Chinese ID card, which was produced by journalists using software readily available for free online, have been circulating the Internet for the last two weeks.

If the reporters wanted to make a statement about the huge challenge China faces in combating fraud and personal identity theft, it worked.

By using fake IDs, fraudsters will possibly open bank and credit card accounts in other people's names, leaving victims to pay sky-high bills.

Yet, security experts say that the poor protection offered to customers by many Chinese websites means the country's 400 million-odd netizens - the largest population in the world - actually hand over the exact details these criminals need every time they sign up for a Web service.

Research carried out by China Youth Daily shows that almost 90 percent of online users receive spam e-mail and text messages, as well as unsolicited sales calls, after entering their data online.

Unfortunately for single people, matchmaking websites are among the worst offenders, say analysts.

To log on, users need to provide their name, age, gender, education and employment records, pictures and contact details, and many also give their MSN and QQ instant messenger addresses.

Such sites are the "more likely" to disclose customers' personal data to third parties, said a 2009 information safety report released by Jiangmin Software, a leading firm of consultants. It does not state who buys the information.

Young Web users, the report added, are largely unaware of the potential dangers of giving out details online.

Roughly 95 percent of netizens aged 15 to 30 have signed up with at least one online dating agency, according to China Internet Information Center annual report on Web safety. Ministry of Industry and Information Technology figures also show the market leaders, which includes shijijiayuan.com, sayhou.com and hunlian.com, boast 191 million registered users alone. When freelance writer Deng Hongcheng, 26, signed up with an online dating agency two years ago, he had hoped to find a woman to spend the rest of his life with. What he got was harassed.

Shortly after joining, he began to receive calls on his cell phone from sales people early in the morning.

"I answered the phone at 1 am once and a woman asked me if I was interested in buying an apartment outside Beijing's 4th Ring Road," said Deng. "I politely refused but she kept calling back."

His phone continued to ring for two months until he decided to change his number.

"They were always people advertising apartments or electrical devices," he said. "It's intolerable getting phone calls all the time, especially when you are sleeping soundly."

Although there is no official statistics on how many people are affected, a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released in February said consumer associations are regularly inundated with complaints.

A random survey of 200 people conducted by China Daily in late March showed more than 60 percent had received unsolicited sales calls from salespeople touting credit cards, electrical appliances and property. All those polled said they had left personal data on the Internet.

Only 33 percent of netizens in 2007 said they believed China's Web companies did a good job protecting their personal data, according to the China Internet Information Center.

Testing times

After testing 62 Chinese matchmaking websites, Jiangmin Software's 2010 information safety report concluded that 42 had failed, scoring less than 60 points out of a possible 100. The evaluation was based on the protection measures each site offered, general security and users' rights.

In an earlier 2009 report, the website that came out on top for overall safety was baihe.com.

"Efficiently protecting members' personal information is an essential factor in the development of matchmaking websites," said Tian Fanjiang, chief executive of baihe.com.

He said only 15 percent of his site's customers currently use their real names.

Most are "reluctant to because they fear their details will be released", said Tian, before adding: "We're in the early stages of this market and it could be affected if users' trust cannot be secured."

People who use online recruitment agencies are also prone to being targeted by fraudsters looking to con them out of cash.

"Resumes can be sold at very low prices to companies that pretend to be looking for employees," said Li Decheng, president of Beijing Committee of Information Network Law.

Yu Jie, who will graduate from Peking University this month, said a company recently invited her for a job interview - but when she got there the interviewer demanded 200 yuan ($30) up front.

Chinahr.com, a site for jobseekers, was ranked the best for data protection after a test of online companies in 2009 by the China Software Testing Center, scoring 67 points out of 100.

"Websites should take the responsibility to respect and protect users' privacy," said the winning websites general manager, Yin Danling. "We use advanced technology to protect customers from online attacks."

Research by Jiangmin Software shows most websites suffer from common problems: They either don't have privacy policy statements or they are too general to be any use to customers.

Seeking solutions

The most efficient way to solve the problem of personal data disclosure is to make clear laws that carry firm punishments, said Gao Zhiyang, deputy director of China Software Testing Center.

There also needs to be transparent lines of supervision, he said, before recommending that a department be set up to deal with any violations.

Although there are already several articles in at least three laws and regulations, Xie Shoufen, law professor of Fudan University said personal data collection currently relies on industries being self-disciplined.

A draft law on personal information protection was completed in 2008 but is still being modified by government experts. It is unknown when it will be implemented.

"The law will clearly define what sort of personal data can be collected and published, the responsibility of agencies and the juridical procedure for protection," explained Zhang Zili, vice-chairman of Anhui Branch of the China Association for Promoting Democracy, who is also a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

In February, Zhou Jianping was jailed for 18 months and fined 2,000 yuan after police in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, discovered he had been illegally selling personal data for more than two years.

Zhou is the first person on the Chinese mainland to be charged with distributing personal information.

Source:China Daily


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