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Tuesday, September 01, 2020, 15:58
Curbing illegal collection of info by apps
By Liu Xinhai
Tuesday, September 01, 2020, 15:58 By Liu Xinhai

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology's decision in late August to ban eight apps highlights the authorities' determination to protect users' rights and interests. The ministry's action also shows the supervisory authorities are committed to protecting people's personal information at a time when the digital economy is expanding.

After the novel coronavirus epidemic broke out, individuals' QR (quick response) health code, an app to digitally track a person and form a digitalized personal health data base, has been widely used nationwide as an effective tool to help prevent and control the spread of the virus, so normal economic and social activities could resume.

Supervision departments including the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology are required to strictly follow data security and personal information protection laws and regulations while using the health code, and strengthen supervision to ensure such data are not misused or abused.

The problem of apps excessively collecting consumers' data is complicated and closely related to commercial interests, which hasn't been totally resolved despite many campaigns. Since many mobile phone apps are new, supervision authorities have to explore new management methods to balance public interest and personal information protection.

In the era of digital economy, consumers' data are like gold mines for big data companies and commercial organizations, which can use them to dig out valuable commercial information and increase their revenues. Many internet-based companies also collect consumer information through apps to explore commercial information and make profits.

More than 5 million apps are in use in China, and the owners of some of these apps violate users' privacy and personal information to make profits, which amounts to crimes such as personal identification theft and telecommunications fraud. Needless to say, such apps pose a big challenge to personal information protection.

Supervisory authorities have taken strict measures to overcome this challenge and achieved some success. In January last year, for instance, the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, Ministry of Public Security and the State Administration for Market Regulation jointly launched a special campaign to identify such illegal apps and take action against their creators/owners, which has, to some extent, strengthened personal information protection of app users.

According to a recent survey of netizens, 76 percent of the respondents said the problem of apps collecting excessive personal information has been addressed to a certain extent-in particular, the apps that illegally seek personal information have been banned.

The personal information collected by apps varies because the functions of the apps differ. For instance, an app related to micro-finance may collect more personal information than shopping apps. In November 2019, the four central departments mentioned above issued a regulation on how to identify apps that illegally collect personal information without the users' consent, saying such apps use six illegal ways to do so-this fact could be used as reference for law enforcement in the future.

Besides, the National Information Security Standardization Technical Committee has also revised the national standard of personal information security, and implemented the national standard of mobile internet app collecting personal information that stipulates the basic requirements for collecting personal information through apps.

Based on laws and regulations such as the report on apps illegally collecting and using individuals' personal information, and cybersecurity law, the government issued a series of personal information protection regulations last year including the personal information network protection regulation for children. In the future, more such regulations including on data security management will be issued, in order to better protect personal information.

Apart from legal construction, the personal information protection network has seen rapid improvement. Some enterprises that follow the principle of developing technology for social good have also played a role in boosting the fight against the misuse and abuse of users' personal information.

For example, domestic mobile phone makers such as Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo have begun developing inbuilt privacy protection functions in their handsets to prevent apps from collecting unnecessary personal information of the users, which can effectively curb the illegal collection of personal information and help protect the users' private information.

The author is a researcher of Financial Intelligence Research Center, Peking University.

The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily. 

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