The world of data looked very different when the Personal Data Ordinance was first implemented in 1996. Technological advances since then have allowed personal data to be collected, stored, analysed, copied and distributed electronically with phenomenal ease and in sophisticated ways. This means data breaches, identity thefts and various forms of misuse of personal data are common occurrences.
One of the most common forms can be seen in cold calling. The word “cold” means that the person receiving the call is not expecting a call or has not specifically asked to be contacted by a salesperson. Often, the salesperson is able to address the call receiver by their family name, which begs the question of where they got the information from.
Fankie Lee Sui-fan, a year-one student in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, had a summer job working for a telemarketer this summer. Her job was to make cold calls and promote beauty services or education courses, such as associate degree and top-up degree programmes. She also promoted investment talks.
Lee says she was assigned telephone numbers obtained through two methods. In the first one, the company gave her a list with phone numbers only and without any personal information. She would have to address the receiver as Mister or Miss depending on what their voice indicated.
A second way the company obtained telephone numbers was to pay their staff to hand in telephone lists. The list should include phone numbers and at least the family names, and gender of the receiver. “[The company] has a huge sales force; when they give out a list of phone numbers, they will get monetary reward,” says Lee. She says a list with 50 contacts was worth about HK$30 to HK$40.
Although she says she never handed in a list, she believes those that she was given probably contained the names and numbers of the friends and relatives of other staff members.
Lee did not enjoy her experience of being a cold call salesperson. The people on the other end were usually annoyed by the calls. People hung up on her and even scolded her. Since the job was neither enjoyable nor well-paid, she quit after a month. “When I was interviewed for the job, I was told that I would always be rejected, and they asked if I could bear it or not.”
Consumers do have some tools with which to fight cold calls. Various smartphone applications can either block the calls or tell receivers not to answer the call. “Small Bear” for Android phones and “Callers” for the iPhone are just two examples. The apps get their data from a website called “HKJunkCall.com”.
HKJunkCall.com, is the brainchild of William Wu Man-hon who thinks cold calls present a serious problem in Hong Kong.
Wu started getting cold calls in early 2008, sometimes he got more than 10 a day. As an IT support assistant, he knew that a simple computer could be easily used to generate those disturbing calls. So he jotted down the numbers. At first, he kept updating the “Black List of Advertising Calls” on some internet forums. But the forums got complaints and the posts were deleted. So, in 2009. Wu set up first a Facebook group and then a website to post numbers.
People who are interested in writing applications for smartphone users to block cold calls from unknown companies contact him for the data of blacklisted phone numbers. Currently, there are seven applications using his information.
Despite the demand and interest in Wu’s service, he insists on maintaining the website for free, working on it for about half an hour every day. He is dedicated to eliminating the disturbance of cold calls because he believes, “phone calls can involve the selling of personal information, I think it is immoral.”