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Hong Kong: Facebook Privacy, Anonymous Sources, Political Censorship

A team of reporters working for a local Hong Kong newspaper, the Hong Kong Economic Journal, have jointly shared a Facebook account, Keyman.hk, to exchange views with readers since 2010. They also opened another Facebook page, Keyman Page, in 2012. Their user account have accumulated thousands of friends and followers and is more popular than the public page.

Recently, the team has decided to quit the newspaper, but the management demanded that they transfer their user account password to the company before they leave the newspaper. The deadline of the account transfer is at around 8 p.m. on November 1.

As the journalist team has been very critical of the Hong Kong government in their newspaper column, their collective resignation has been interpreted as a kind of political censorship, even though they publicly explained that they have other plans. However, because the Facebook account has been used by the reporters as a platform to connect with sources of information, the account transfer has become a sticking point for the reporters.

Below is Keyman's report on the situation published on their Facebook status on October 31:

After the user account transfer, who exactly is your friend? Photo by Flickr user Angscopy. CC: BY-SA.

After the user account transfer, who exactly is your friend? Photo by Flickr user Angscopy. CC: BY-SA.

紀曉風是信報的資產, 故團隊離開, 不帶走任何東西, 公司也已經多次提出, 提醒團隊要在離開時, 同時交出紀曉風facebook的登入資料, 好讓公司派人接手管理。

老紀對有關安排並無異議, 但同時也有另一考慮, 正是「保護消息來源」這「3個字」。

歷年之間, 有數之不盡的網民並消息人士與被訪者, 透過facebook跟老紀聯繫交流, 紀曉風對「保護消息來源」責無旁貸, 故曾反建議公司另立專頁及帳戶, 而把現時的永久停用, 惟公司拒絕了有關建議。

雙方最後同意, 在把現時帳戶與專頁的資料備份後, 再刪除所有私訊內容才交出登入資料。

Keyman is the property of Hong Kong Economic Journal, so when the team leaves, we should not retain any company property. The management has reminded us many times that we have to hand over the login details for Facebook accounts so that the company can take over.

I am not against such arrangement. But my worry is the “protection of sources of information “.

In the past few years, a number of netizens and sources have communicated with Keyman through our Facebook account, and we have the responsibility to protect all these sources. So we put forward a counter proposal to the company by suggesting them to set up another page and account, and we will suspend our account and page forever. But the company turned down the suggestion.

Eventually both parties agreed to backup the account and page timeline and then delete the private messages before turning in the login information.

Because the company turned down their request to suspend the account rather than transfer it, Keyman asked their friends to “un-friend” the account:

有關做法其實亦有不妥的地方的, 例如紀曉風的個人帳戶, 跟網友成了朋友, 就能讀取及獲得對方的個人資料, 但未來紀曉風面書由誰管理, 紀曉風團隊仍全不知情, 換言之, 未來或由陌生人士, 又或由非新聞工作者管理的, 當中涉及極其複雜的私隱問題, 而事實上, 也有消息人士跟老紀表明, 不接受這個交接模式, 認為做法仍有讓他們身份曝光的可能。對於消息人士提出的憂慮, 紀曉風曾向公司反映, 回覆是由於對方選擇以此方式聯繫, 對方似乎也需要承擔風險, 但老紀已對此明確表示不能接受。

紀曉風視「保護消息來源」為天條, 但同時也面對需要交出面書帳戶的現實, 故此在此將作24小時倒數, 任何對此安排感到不安的網友, 請自行中斷過去跟紀曉風的聯繫, 而老紀亦會把表明了不接受此安排的網友unfriend, 以保護你們的身份。

It is highly inappropriate to transfer the account. In particular, Keyman's account has made many friends, and it can read all the private information of its friends’ network. In the future, we don't know who exactly will manage this account. In other words, the future account may be managed by stranger or someone without a journalistic background. Privacy is involved here. Some Keyman sources said that they opposed to a transfer because it would expose their identity. We raised such concerns with the company, but the reply was that the risk is for the sources to take as they have chosen the communication tool. This is unacceptable to us.

We consider the “protection of sources” to be our prime principle. At the same time, the situation forced us to hand over the account password. That's why we are doing a 24-hour countdown here. If anyone cannot accept the account transfer arrangement, please un-friend Keyman and Keyman will also un-friend those who disagree with the above arrangement in order to protect your privacy.

However, many of Keyman's friends pointed out that the “un-friend” strategy won't work. In the comment thread following Keyman's status, Terry Chan looked at the issue from a technical angle:

私訊好似刪除唔到,就算刪咗,只要之後再同果個人聯絡,之前d msg會show返晒出嚟

You cannot eradicate private message. Even if you un-friend the person, once the users start to communicate with each other again, all the archived messages will show up.

Steve Chan dug up Facebook's legal terms of use:

You will not share your password (or in the case of developers, your secret key), let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account.

You will not transfer your account (including any Page or application you administer) to anyone without first getting our written permission.

Shing Leung, also in the comment section urged Keyman's friends to take action:

請大家一齊檢舉依個acc,保護消息來源!

Please report Keyman's account [to Facebook admin] so as to protect news sources.

Ip Iam Chong shared Keyman's status and asked them to make a moral decision instead of a legal decision over the matter:

請delete咗個account,咁樣可能係毀壞公司「財產」,係犯法。但係,如果咁樣係為左公共利益最好的辦法,都要公民抗命,合乎道德。

Please delete the account, even if means destroying company property or breaking the law. If such an action is the best means to protect public interest, you have to disobey. It is a moral choice.

Citizen media platform inmediahk shared Keyman's status and suggested that friends of Keyman file a report to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data, an office dedicated to the individual privacy, against the Hong Kong Economic Journal. 

It is important to remember that Keyman is an account, not a fan page. The matter is not simply about protecting sources, but also about the privacy of the journalists’ friends who would become known to the new owner of the account. A compromise could be to hand over the page to the company and delete the user account.

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