Sun, Nov 16, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Maintaining privacy in a democracy

On Friday, while receiving a group of foreign academics attending an international conference on information technology, President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) said that "the personal properties and land-registration data of politicians should be lawfully filed for public views to begin with ... for transparency purposes, but the public disclosure ... (of such information) to the general public is an issue worthy of reflection."

Chen's remark came in a backdrop of a series of controversial disclosure and leaks of personal information, prompting discussions about the role of personal privacy in a democracy and explosion in the amount of free information available, thanks to the Internet.

The Ministry of Interior was severely criticized last week for making land-registration information accessible on the Internet to the general public. The fact that the information available includes the personal identification numbers and birthdate of land owners -- information that could be used by unscrupulous people to forge ID cards or apply for credit cards, cash cards and cellphone numbers. Such information could also be of interest to criminals looking for kidnapping victims.

The ministry's decision to remove such sensitive information from public access is a step in the right direction. However, it may not be enough. It is also imperative for the government to establish more effective mechanisms to trace individuals who might have accessed such data.

Only a few days earlier, there were news reports that information submitted by 2,000 people who had applied for Citibank credit cards via the Internet had been accessible to anyone over the Internet for more than three months.

With democratization, a heighten sense of individualism, which had been suppressed during the martial law era, has grown rapidly. With this rising sense of individualism has come a growing demand for the right to privacy.

The rapid evolution of technology, however, has also led to a rapid increase in the amount of information readily available as well as making it easier to exchange such data. While these changes have brought many positive things such as improved efficiency, convenience and cost-savings, the loss of personal privacy is a negative side-effect that should not be ignored.

Maintaining a proper balance between all these things is imperative. Among the distinguishing characteristics of totalitarianism are the lack of transparency in government policies, decision-making and activities, lack of public monitoring and supervision and extreme violation of personal privacy such as the personal, mail and phone surveillance of political dissidents.

The reverse should be true in a democracy such as Taiwan. Government transparency, as well as the transparency of officials' public conduct are essential. In contrast, the personal privacy of the average citizen must be protected as much as possible.

The importance of protecting personal privacy is evident from the fact that it is on the list of human rights protected under both the human-right protection bill being drafted by the Presidential Office and the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. How to establish a mechanism to protect this right is an especially important task for the Democratic Progressive Party, which has proclaimed human-rights protection to be the core of its administration and campaign platforms.

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